Nashville Cats: Salute to Session Player David Briggs

March 26, 2011
As David Briggs recounted his fifty-year career as a prominent player on Nashville’s Music Row, he continually referred to other musicians with whom he shared studio time. His emphasis on shared camaraderie, and the humility displayed in crediting his heroes and supporters, underscores a trait common among early Nashville studio musicians: They enjoyed each other’s company; they gave each other room to shine; and, like the classic songs they helped create, their personal bonds have stood the test of time.

Briggs was honored as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s ongoing Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to veteran musicians who have proven integral to the city’s role as a leading music center. Interviewed by series host Bill Lloyd, Briggs traced his wide-ranging career in a ninety-minute program in the museum’s Ford Theater.

As Lloyd explained, Briggs started out as a teen playing piano on R&B and pop recordings in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, including hits by Arthur Alexander and Tommy Roe. He also backed Roe onstage in 1964 in Washington, D.C., for the first Beatles concert appearance in America, which occurred two days after the Beatles appeared on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show. (For the museum program, Lloyd showed never-publicly-broadcast footage of the Beatles performing that night, shot by Norbert Putnam, another Muscle Shoals-to-Nashville musician playing with Roe that night).

By the time of the Beatles concert, Briggs was traveling to Nashville regularly, for both his own records and to play pianos on the recordings of others. Producer Owen Bradley, an early supporter, signed Briggs as an artist to Decca Records in 1962. (Lloyd played a recording of Briggs’s 1963 pop single, “When I Think of You”).

“The Bradleys have always been so important to me,” Briggs said of one of the legendary Music Row families. Besides signing Briggs to a record deal, Owen Bradley also gave him some of his first studio work in town. Later, his son Jerry Bradley, as a producer and head of RCA Records in Nashville, hired Briggs as well as recording songs he published. Harold Bradley, the studio guitarist and Owen’s brother, provided important support to Briggs among studio players.

“All those guys were so good to me, as were Felton Jarvis, Bob Beckham, Bill Lowery,” said Briggs, who finally moved to Nashville in the mid-1960s. “They helped me get up here. Because I had those connections, it made me more comfortable when I moved. I knew I had a few people on my side.”

Early on, Briggs began expanding his role in the city’s creative community. “He’s been an artist, a songwriter, a producer, a studio owner, and a very successful music publisher,” Lloyd said. “He’s the kind of success that Nashville doesn’t see very often.”

For the Nashville Cats program, Lloyd focused on the Alabama native’s talents as a session musician. Briggs’s recording sessions included hits with such stars as Waylon Jennings, Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Milsap, Oak Ridge Boys, Elvis Presley, Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, and B.J. Thomas, among many others.

“It was as a piano man that David slid in behind Pig Robbins and Floyd Cramer,” Lloyd said, citing how Briggs joined the other two piano legends as top Music Row session keyboardists.

Robbins was among the many previous Nashville Cats in attendance. Others included Harold Bradley, Jerry Kennedy, Bob Moore, Wayne Moss, Weldon Myrick, Norbert Putnam, Chip Young, and Reggie Young.

For a long time, Briggs stopped playing road gigs to concentrate on studio musicianship, which often had him working sixteen-hour days spread across four different four-hour sessions, with little break in between. “The advice the older musicians gave me was don’t play TV shows, don’t go on the road, and don’t play the Grand Ole Opry-because they’ll assume you’re not good enough to play on records if you did,” Briggs said. “That was back in those days. It sounds kind of silly now. Now you have to do everything.”

Briggs made an exception to go on the road with Elvis Presley, playing with him at a New Year’s Eve show in Pontiac, Michigan, and during long-running Las Vegas stands. He also did a short stint on the road with Joan Baez, after she recorded her 1971 album Blessed Are at Quadrafonic Studios, which Briggs co-owned with Norbert Putnam (who produced Baez’s album).

“She would fly me back every other day, so nobody ever knew I left,” Briggs explained. “She was paying so much money that I went.”

Nonetheless, Briggs devoted most of his time to playing on recording sessions. “When I worked for Chet [Atkins] or Owen or people like that, I figured it was because they couldn’t get Floyd Cramer or Pig,” he said with an off-hand modesty he displayed throughout the program. “I was the substitute when the good guys couldn’t do it. So I started out working with really big artists, right from the start.”

On May 26, 1966, Briggs participated in his first recording session with Elvis Presley, an invitation that led him to become one of the King of Rock & Roll’s favorite keyboardists. “I got the call because Floyd was busy working with Owen at a session for Bill Anderson,” Briggs said. “I later thanked Owen for that.”

During that first session, Briggs played piano on the pop hit “Love Letters,” even though Briggs had been told the session was for a gospel album. But after Presley arrived that night, he announced that he wanted to cut the ballad.

Presley sat down on the piano bench next to the hired pianist-“scared me like the devil,” Briggs quipped-and helped all the musicians work out the tune’s chords. But before the song was finished, Cramer arrived, having finished his session with Anderson and Bradley.

“I of course got up and went back to the organ and sat down, to let Floyd play,” Briggs recalled. “Elvis got about halfway through the song, and stopped and said, ‘Where’s that boy? I got used to the way he was doing it, Floyd.’”

Briggs laughed at the memory, but was quick to point out that Presley didn’t choose him over Cramer, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Elvis just had gotten used to the way I was playing it, which wasn’t as good as Floyd would have played and not half as good as Pig [Robbins] would have played it. But I was the only one there when he started, and when he got used to what you were doing, I guess he liked it. That was a good beginning for me.”

Briggs also learned to play two keyboards at once in the studio. He would spread his wide arms, one hitting the bass notes on a piano, the other hand playing the high notes on an electronic Midi synthesizer. But, amid such examples of his rare talent, Briggs was just as likely to tell humorous stories on himself, such as the time he was trying to play two keyboards at once during a Perry Como session while also conducting the string section with movements of his head, because Atkins and an unnamed arranger both had fallen asleep in the control room. “At the end, I mistakenly played a note one-half-step up, and it woke Chet up and woke the arranger up, and Perry Como fell off the stool laughing.”

Besides all the country recording sessions, Briggs played on albums by everyone from Ann-Margret to the Monkees to Simon & Garfunkel. “I did Flatt & Scruggs one morning, with producer Bob Johnston, just playing the rhythm,” Briggs said. I’d do that at 10:00 a.m., then at 2:00 p.m. I played with Al Hirt and sixty pieces-strings, brass and all that. Then I had Dean Martin at six o’clock, and Cal Smith at 10:00 p.m. I worked four sessions all the time, and sometimes on Saturday or even Sunday.”

Briggs also played in the band Area Code 615, consisting of top Nashville studio musicians. “Area Code 615 is one of those records that didn’t get a lot of attention in the short run, but, in the long run, it has become a landmark record loved by a lot of musicians,” Lloyd said, recalling that Peter Frampton once approached John Briggs, David’s brother, wanting to talk about David’s work with Area Code 615.

Briggs’s production credits include Shotgun Willie, a transitional album for Willie Nelson that, today, remains a critically acclaimed work cherished by fans. “I didn’t necessarily even want to do it,” Briggs said, saying he stepped in to help initial producers Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler, who had trouble taming Nelson’s unwieldy backing band. “But I’m glad I did, because I make more today, thirty-eight years later, out of that than I do two Elvis albums and two Jim Reeves albums put together. Willie sells more than any of them.”

Briggs touched on other aspects of his career, including cutting a duet album with producer Jerry Kennedy under the name Joe Kenyon; his years as music director of the CMA Awards and more than fifty TV programs; his publishing success with cuts by Whitney Houston, Steve Winwood, and others; recording scores of commercial jingles for Chevrolet, McDonald’s, NBC, and many more; and session work into the ‘90s with Mark Chesnutt, Sammy Kershaw, and a long list of additional artists.

“I can’t tell you all the best stories,” Briggs said. “But I can tell you that we had a lot of fun.”

-Michael McCall