'Playin' Around The Lives and Careers of Famous Session Musicians'

Jennifer Ember Pierce, The Scarecrow Press, USA, 1998, ISBN: 0810834340

Playin' Around is a fascinating read. Ms Pierce details the lives and careers of 12 of the most famous session musicians and most of them backed Elvis!

The stories recounted in Playin' Around are rich in detail, rich in humour and rich in providing deeper insight to both the world of music and the King of Rock & Roll.

With amusing anecdotes, rare photos and vivid biographies, Ms Pierce has constructed a highly enjoyable trip into and behind the scenes of the recording studio.
The 12 musicians featured are a veritable "who's who" of the music session world:
  • Harold Ray Bradley (Banjo/guitar)
  • Reggie Young (Guitar)
  • Jerry Kennedy (Guitar)
  • Dave Pomeroy (Electric and acoustic basses)
  • Charlie McCoy (Guitar/harmonica/keyboards)
  • Bobby R. Wood (Piano/keyboards/organ)
  • David Briggs (Keyboards/piano)
  • Sonny Garrish (Pedal steel)
  • Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson (Harmonica)
  • Eddie Bayers, Jr. (Drums)
  • Buddy Harman (Drums)
  • Joey Miskulin (Accordian)

As an example of the pedigree and wealth of experience of the 12 musicians featured, guitarist Harold Ray Bradley's incredible 'credit list' includes Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson, Paul Anka, Eddy Arnold, Joan Baez, Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, Connie Francis, Dolly Parton, Ray Price, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Martino, Roger Miller, Charlie Pride, Hank Williams, Slim Whitman, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and Elvis! He even backed film star Robert Mitchum who recorded Little Ole Wine Drinker Me (the song made famous by one of Elvis's idols, Dean Martin).

Bradley's account of his time with Elvis is full of color and humour: All of a sudden I heard all of this commotion out in the back alley behind the studio, so I opened the back door and looked out and there was a sea of boys and girls out there. They were everywhere. They were standing on the hood of my new station wagon. There was no way I was going to go out there and say, "Get off my station wagon." I just shook my head and went back inside and said to myself, "I don't know how much money I'm going to make with this guy but, it's not going to be enough to pay for my station wagon."

Playin' Around includes observations about the material Elvis recorded and its politics. Reggie Young (pictured) observed: "Apparently somebody in the entourage, somebody in a suit, told [Chips] Moman. "You don't pick his material. We've already got his material picked. Also, if Elvis wants to cut those songs we'll want all of the publishing."

Keyboardist and pianist David Briggs recounts an incident symbolising Elvis's lack of appreciation of his importance: "One time I was travelling with Elvis on his plane, and he was looking out the window as we began to make our descent and he said, "Man, have they had a crash down there? There are thousands of people and ambulances and fire trucks all over the place." I said, "Hell, they're there because of you, man." He said, "Oh you're kidding me." David Briggs wasn't kidding!

In another chapter, drummer Buddy Harman had this to say about Elvis: "Elvis was a very shy and humble guy, and his attitude kind of surprised me….but he was always considerate and polite. He never got cocky or obnoxious…When you have the opportunity to work with people like Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison, who have such incredible talent, and who are real down to earth guys, that's a great high."

The book is well structured with each chapter involving a third party biography of the particular musician, each person's 'own story' and a 'credit list' of the artists each musician has played with. Value added extras include copies of recording log books, pen pictures of each musician and important commentary on the role of session musicians, the politics/state of the music industry generally and the impact of greed on the industry and what is recorded and released.

If you want to read a book that takes you behind the scenes and into the recording studio, Playin' Around is the one. It is an engrossing, eye opening and often funny read that will enrich both your music knowledge and your appreciation of the hard working 'team' that is involved in making the songs that capture our hearts and minds.

Verdict: Session musicians form an essential musical backbone to an artist's recordings. They are generally unrecognised and under-appreciated. Playin' Around deftly tells their stories and details their very important contribution to the music revered by several generations. It is a significant and revealing release in the field of popular music that will appeal to all types of music fans. And there's plenty of Elvis too!

Reviewed by Nigel Patterson © 2003

To buy Playin' Around (link to Amazon)