Elliott Randall - Every Band's Guitarist
A Short Bio
Elliott Randall's illustrious career has encompassed a wide and
varied cross-section of World Musical forms. These include: record
production, composition, electronic research and development, lectures
and teaching, and of course, a legendary contribution to popular
guitar performance and recording.
His guitar solos on Steely Dan's "Reelin' In The Years"
and "Fame" (the motion picture) have entered Rock history
Elliott has recorded and performed with artists as diverse as The Doobie
Brothers, Carly Simon, Seatrain, The Blues Brothers, Carl Wilson, Peter
Wolf, Peter Frampton, James Galway, Richie Havens, The Rochester Philharmonic
and The American Symphony Orchestra, among many others. In addition,
he is a favorite of esteemed songwriters Jimmy Webb, George David Weiss,
Don Covay and the greatly missed Laura Nyro. Other credits include:
music consultant for NBC Saturday Night Live and Oliver Stone, and projects
with producers Gary Katz, David Kershenbaum, Steve Lillywhite, Eddie
Kramer and Jerry Wexler.
Access Rock: I really enjoyed listening to both
of the new CD's, especially Time and Again. I'm
a big fan of roots and blues music!! Your roots are definitely planted
in blues and R&B. Who are the most important artists in these
genres that first influenced you?
Elliott: That's a little bit of a tough one -
there have been so many influences. If I go back all the way... I started playing guitar in '56.
I was 9 years old. The players who influenced me then were the twangy guitar players,
and the guitar-oriented T.V. themes like 'Lawman', 'Bonanza', 'Maverick'....also Duane Eddy,
Jorgen Ingann and The Ventures. There is more than a hint of bluesy stuff in a lot of what they're playing.
When I started playing out live, I was about thirteen or fourteen, playing music by the
Isley Brothers, The Flamingos.. lots of rhythm & blues music.
I remember being blown away by hearing The Flamingos.
Access Rock: I'm not familiar with them.
Elliott: They were a doo-wop group, but were also a self-contained band.
Back in the 50's R&B was called 'race music'. When I started playing clubs,
we covered a lot of recordings by artists like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, music that was coming
out of the deep South that was really crossing white and black boundaries.
Steve Cropper was an influence even though I didn't know it was him at that point.
Other studio guitarists that I was digging were Jimmy Johnson, Reggie Young and Little Beaver,
not to mention Howard Roberts and Tommy Tedesco on the west coast.
Access Rock: You were one of the biggest New York
session players in the '70's and '80's. How did you break into the
Elliott: While I started recording various 'small time' demos as early as 1964,
I actually broke into the scene in the late sixties. I was a music teacher in Ohio for a year -
between mid-66 and mid-67. When I returned to New York, I had the opportunity to work for a record company
called Musicor. In these days, some of the record companies had musicians on staff.
So I was a staff musician for Musicor, working for a couple of different producers there.
I not only started getting all of my chops together for the studio, but my appetite was wetted because
it was a fun and challenging thing to do.
Access Rock: How did you get in contact with those producers?
Elliott: Initially through an arranger friend named George Andrews.
He recommended and hired me for a lot of his recordings, and it just went on from there. In 1968
I had a number of other friends who were making records. They started calling me in to do real,
full-scale recording dates. And back in those days it was everybody sitting in the studio together.
The spontaneity was wonderful. Then in 1969, I joined a group called Seatrain. Interestingly,
I had a quick decision to make at that time. I had also just been offered the opportunity by
Don Covay and Wilson Pickett to come down to Muscle Shoals to play on Wilson's new album.
Retrospectively, I think I made the right choice. While I would have loved to do that, joining Seatrain
brought me into a whole new dimension - of bands playing larger concert stages - better venues, more opportunities
Access Rock: What genre would you put Seatrain into?
Elliott:Seatrain began as an outgrowth of The Blues Project - Al Kooper's group.
There were several incarnations of Seatrain, and I was in the middle one. Their first album was for A&M Records.
I was on the middle record - the full album never got released, but a couple of singles did.
Then when I left, they moved over to Capitol [Records]. Seatrain was into experimental rock & roll.
It had elements of jazz, country, and classical in the music.
Access Rock: Yah, maybe I have heard them and just don't know it.
Elliott: It was a very interesting band with really great musicians.
We spent tons of time in the recording studio, so I was getting more of my studio techniques together.
One crucial thing that I always tell aspiring guitarists is that it's really important to be able to
hear yourself in 'playback' mode. It's without a doubt one of the best ways to improve your playing.
When I give guitarists consultations, I always suggest that whenever they go out and play, they should
always record their performance, even if it's on a little cassette recorder - you get the chance to
listen to what you've just 'stated'. You'll find that there will be things that you think were cool,
and they're really not - and vice versa. It's fascinating and fun!
Access Rock: I couldn't agree more!
Elliott: I'll tell you how I really got into the studio scene now (laughs).
In 1970, I was signed to the Robert Stigwood Organization - managers of Cream, The Bee Gees, John Mayall,
The Staples Singers. I'd put together a band called Randall's Island.
We made a couple of records on Polydor. They were very interesting
and also very eclectic. My musical tastes run in all sorts of directions.
That threw the record company and my management for a bit of a loop - 'what to do with these guys!?'
Well, it turned out that The Stigwood Organization bought the rights to Jesus Christ Superstar in '72
and produced the show on Broadway. So they offered us the opportunity to be the band for the Broadway
production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Randall's Island was made
up of very schooled musicians - we could all read, follow a conductor etc. So we agreed.
It was the first time any of us were making 'good steady money' every week - you know, pension and
health benefits paid by the employer. There were about thirty-five musicians in the pit, most of whom were
somewhat older and more established than we were, and many of them were working solidly in the recording studios.
They did this every day - recording commercials and records. So I began getting recommendations from many of these
folks to play on studio dates - loads of them. I was also championed by a guitar player named Vinnie Bell.
I don't know if you've ever heard of him?
Access Rock: I've heard the name.
Elliott: Are you familiar with the Coral 'Electric Sitar'?
Access Rock: Yah.
Elliott: Vinnie invented that. He's an unbelievably versatile musician as
well as an electronics engineer. Vinnie would bring into the studio this
mysterious big box of electronic effects. This was before all of the little
stompboxes. I was just starting to dabble in electronic effects myself, and
whenever Vinnie couldn't make a job he'd say, "Well, I got this young guy
named Elliott Randall - you might try him." At that point I really became
firmly entrenched into the New York studio scene. Often, I would do as many
as eight recording dates in the course of a day! Then in the summer of '72,
I went out to California, looking to expand my horizons. I was about to
leave Jesus Christ Superstar and coincidentally recorded the first Steely
Access Rock: O.K.
Elliott: Donald and Walter and I all used to be in the backing band for Jay
and the Americans.
Access Rock: Jay and The Americans were who?
Elliott: A singing group (laughs)!
Access Rock: O.K. (laughs)
Elliott: They were a really interesting group. They had a string of hits.
Their first hit was called "She Cried", and they had "This Magic Moment" and
"Only in America". I'm sure you would recognize the songs if you heard them.
Access Rock: Well, I've probably heard them on wedding gigs that I've played!
Elliott: (Laughs) So, there is this bit of history between Donald, Walter,
and myself. I did a bunch of their demos in New York before they got a
record deal. When they migrated out to California to make their first
record, it was sort of coincidence that I was there. I called up [Jeff
"Skunk"] Baxter (great studio guitarist) - he and I had been friends since I
was fourteen! I was invited to join them in the studio. They asked me to have a
go at playing the introduction, the solos and 'answering' licks. It was the
first take - just one of those magical moments, it just happened.
Access Rock:Yah, I was going to ask you about that.
Elliott: Right, No punching in - just straight performance. In fact, the take
that I did before the engineer actually put the machine into record might
have been better. We all sort of thought that it might even be better.
Access Rock: You mean the f***in' engineer didn't have
the record button on?
Elliott: It wasn't his fault, but in any event it didn't get to tape.
Ever since that day, Gary Katz, (their producer), ensures that before you play your
first note, the recording device is running. You never know what's going to
happen! Recording the first take of something embraces a combination of
caution on one hand, and a real adventurousness on the other. In the studio
today, I will always make sure the tape (or whatever medium) is rolling
because the first pass, no matter how accidental, might be really really
Access Rock: So the "Reelin'" solo wasn't
cut and pasted at all?
Access Rock: It's an absolutely brilliant solo - I'm
sure you've heard this a million times!
Elliott: It boosted my career immensely. Once that tune hit the radio, I
was getting calls from everywhere, to fly all over the world to play for
really stupid money. That sort of success can last for many many years. I
think that there are a lot of recordings I've done that are just as good
that remain unheard. So much really good stuff never gets to see the light
of day, and conversely there is an awful lot of sub-quality material that
gets to be quite popular. At the end of the day, most of it is in the marketing
Access Rock: On playing in the studio - what would
you tell other guitar players who want to play studio jingles and
Elliott: Hmmm...that's a little tough to answer, these days.
One should always pursue one's dream, but unfortunately the studio world has become
much smaller than it was in the days when I was doing it steadily. Today,
if somebody tells you that they did eight [studio] dates in the course of a day,
they're most probably lying! What has happened is this - over the last twenty years midi
and digital sampling have put countless musicians into the uncomfortable position
where they need to look for a different line of work within music. This is a little
less true for guitar players. It's much easier to sample a string section or a horn
section then it is those 'special' nuances that a guitar can do.
Access Rock: Yah, if you listen to any of the
T.V. commercials on now, most of it is real guitar!
Elliott: Well, you might be surprised to learn that an awful
lot of those guitars that you just mentioned are being played by the producer of
the jingles - those guitar players that have actually survived the transition.
I think there are maybe three or four steadily working recording guitar players in
New York City right now. Back in the '60's '70's and '80's there were twenty-four or thirty
of us string pluckers working every day. We had the opportunity to interact with each
other. Very often there were two or three guitar players on the same date, so we really
got to spend quality time with our peers. So now a number of these guys have decided that since
the industry has changed and since they understand the writing/playing/producing of jingles
and industrials so well, they've outfitted themselves with all of the necessary gear and
become 'music production houses'. They can easily lay down a bunch of electronic
tracks and overdub some really tasteful guitar parts on top of them. I've done a fair
bit of that but I really don't enjoy the isolation (as compared with the interactive process).
When I first moved to England I spent a couple of years doing that - just me, my instruments,
a bunch of modules and a Macintosh computer. After a while you look at yourself in the mirror
and ask 'What do you think? Was it good? Or what?'
Access Rock: (laughs)
Elliott: If you are with at least one other person while you're making
your music, at least you get to see their eyes, their reactions. You know, interaction is so
important to music - at least for me. But it's subjective, and a personal choice. If you are
a 'solo performer' by trade it's a different story. But personally, I long for those sparks -
like when I hear somebody next to me play something which then inspires me to play something in response.
Access Rock: Yah, that's it. You can't fabricate
Elliott: It's funny. One of the ways that I make a fair portion of my
income these days is internet recording. For example, I might have a client in Florida or L.A.,
and between time and their budget they find it more convenient to just send me a track rather
than fly me out. So I put the tracks they send me into my ProTools setup here, record the
overdubs for them, and port it up to one of my ftp servers for them to collect. These days
it's important to know how to do some of these things.
Access Rock: Absolutely. What do you think satisfies
you most as a musician?
Elliott: I've always loved live performance - the sharing of moments with
an audience is one of the greatest feelings that I've ever experienced. When you're out there
giving 110% to an audience, and they are 'getting it' and giving 110% back, it just makes
you play better. It's very magical! Another big passion is my craft as a studio musician.
Ideally, I like to paint with broad stokes - and the simpler the better. The real question
while figuring out the proper part for a recording is "does it service the piece of music?"
If I'm playing one chord on the fourth beat of every measure, and if that works really well,
then I'm happier delivering that than I would be delivering some long, drawn out, fancy piece
of technical wizardry. Ego is in a funny thing here. I feel brilliant when I can do it simply!
Access Rock: Oh yah.
Elliott: Then there's finding the hook - finding that magical little
couple of notes that really compliment what the vocal is doing or foreshadow what the
chorus is going to be. To some extent it's intellectual, but to a larger extent it's visceral.
It's really from the gut and the heart. Interestingly, a friend of mine has just asked me to
participate in an interview for some web-based music networking group that he belongs to.
He asked me a very interesting question: "For you, where does the music come from?" And I
thought, 'Wow, that's a really great question!' There are times where you just calculated what
to play based on previous experience, like just playing on two and four, or just two, or just
four.... Then there are other times where you just open yourself up to something, and no amount
of brain power could ever come up with whatever couple of notes you just hit! Whether it comes
from a higher place or spirit or what - I haven't got a clue, but there's something there that
you can't put your finger on, it's not a tangible substance.
Access Rock: Absolutely. And, that definitely
is a question that a non-musician would ask!
Access Rock: Are there any career choices that
Elliott: I have a history of turning down really great gigs! (laughs)
Turning down Steely Dan, meaning being a full member of the group, was not a stupid thing,
because I knew that ultimately the dynamics were such that after three or so albums the
band would dissolve, and it did exactly that. And then I wound up playing on some of their
subsequent records - the fourth and fifth. Then John Belushi asked me if I would be the musical
director for The Blues Brothers, and I very politely passed on that.