A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 130: The Star of the Session Drummers


Jim Keltner: You may have never heard of him, but you have heard him. Oh, yes, you have heard him.

Popular music depends on the ever-dependable session musician. In older recordings in the 1950’s and 60’s, they often went uncredited on the songs and albums they played on. They were the guitarists, keyboard players, backup singers and drummers who gave life and quality music to the famous names and their recordings. They are the musical equivalent to the offensive line of a star quarterback: When they play great you don’t even notice because you are so mesmerized by the star quarterback; yet without them? That star would look very, very mediocre and might possibly be flattened like a pancake.

Jim Keltner has come to be known as The Session Drummer. His career has spanned decades and he has backed so many famous names, given a beat to so many hit songs and records, given that solid rhythm foundation that so many great recordings have been built on, that it is almost impossible to keep track of them all.

Rolling Stone magazine listed Jim Keltner as #38 on the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time list. Here is what they had to say about him:

Jim Keltner is one of the most revered session drummers ever, grounding thousands of records including John Lennon’s Imagine, Ringo Starr’s “Photograph,” much of George Harrison’s solo output, both Traveling Wilburys LPs, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and Steely Dan’s “Josie”; not to mention work with Harry Nilsson, the Bee Gees, Pink Floyd, Randy Newman, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, the Pretenders, Fiona Apple and Oasis. Born in Oklahoma, he grew up in Pasadena, California and started doing session work in the Sixties, launching a career that’s touched pretty much every pop and rock idiom. Keltner is known for his solid backing, easygoing feel, jazz-schooled subtlety and versatility. “He reacts to everything that’s going on in the music,” said Leon Russell, who has worked with Keltner frequently over the decades. A hallmark of Keltner’s style is unshowy casualness. “I’ve had a lot of people over the years that have said to me, ‘You don’t look like you’re playing when you’re playing,” he once said, adding, “There’s so many different ways to play the drums, just like guitar.”

So still think you haven’t heard him? He’s played for three ex-Beatles, for Dylan, with Mark Knopfler, John Hiatt, Pink Floyd, the Bee Gees, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, the Pretenders, She & Him, Steely Dan, Tom Petty, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Joe Cocker, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Roy Orbison, Richard Thompson, Neil Young, Booker T and the MGs, Brian Wilson, Gillian Welch, Croby, Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Leon Russell, Elton John, Lucinda Williams, Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Dave Grohl, and some guy named Presley.

Time to give the people who make the stars sound so good their due. Time to honor the Star of the Session Drummers: Jim Keltner!

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