Nashville Cats: Salute to Session Player John Hobbs

March 10, 2012
Renowned keyboardist John Hobbs-who has recorded hits in pop, R&B, and rock as well as in country music-confessed that he tended not to notice borders between musical genres.

“I like all kinds of music,” said Hobbs, who was honored as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s quarterly Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to musicians who have played an integral role in the history of country music. “I don’t really make a big distinction. It’s always hard for me to understand why somebody goes, ‘I hate all country music,’ or ‘I hate all heavy metal.’ You can find examples in any genre of great musicianship and writing and communication.”

Hobbs spoke of his wide-ranging experiences, and particularly his contributions to country music over the last thirty years, during a ninety-minute program in the museum’s Ford Theater. Interviewed by series host Bill Lloyd, Hobbs told hilarious anecdotes and insightful stories about the contributions he has made as a keyboardist, string arranger, and producer of songs and TV themes, several of which have become American cultural touchstones.

A native of Long Beach, California, Hobbs began his career as a Los Angeles session player, but by the 1980s was flying to Nashville to participate in Music Row sessions as well. After splitting his work between Los Angeles and Nashville for ten years, Hobbs realized he wanted to live in Nashville.

“Most music people fall in love with Nashville because it is so about music,” Hobbs said. “The thing about Nashville is there’s a sense of community here among music people that I never felt in Los Angeles. To some respect, it’s geographical. Most of the music business is contained in three long blocks. It has the feeling of a college campus.”

The differences in the work he did in the two different cities also influenced his decision. “The business had changed,” Hobbs said. “In L.A., I was doing a lot of synthesizer stuff and on a lot of commercials, where my friends in Nashville were getting paid a lot of money to sit in pretty rooms and play with a band. They were getting to play with other musicians.”

Hobbs learned trombone as a child, playing in marching bands, but he also took up the piano and performed in a local group, the Four Sounds. At a battle-of-the-bands contest, the Four Sounds came in second behind Karen and Richard Carpenter, who went on to record major pop hits as the Carpenters.

Eventually, Hobbs concentrated on keyboards. “I loved the piano so much once I discovered it,” he said. “When I got to college, I went there as a trombone major, but there were a lot of guys who could play trombone better than I could. Everyone seemed more interested in my piano playing.”

A fan of pop radio, Hobbs said his biggest early influence came from pop and rock hits, including Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam.” Because studio musicians weren’t often credited or known by the public, Hobbs said he didn’t learn until later that his influences included such session musicians as Leon Russell or Hargus “Pig” Robbins. Other favorites included rocker Elton John and jazz legend Bill Evans.

“Radio back then was very eclectic,” Hobbs said. “You heard country music, you heard R&B music, you heard the beginnings of rock & roll and the British Invasion. Music wasn’t quite as pigeonholed back then, which was cool.”

In college, Hobbs considered becoming a high-school band director, because “I didn’t really consider that you could make a career out of being a musician.” But at Long Beach State University he met guitarist Larry Carlton, who went on to become a significant studio player and recording artist. Carlton invited Hobbs to perform in his small combo, and the pianist began tagging along with Carlton to sessions, seeing how the musicians were hired to contribute to recordings.

In time, Hobbs began playing sessions. His first union contract session involved a 1969 recording by pop singer Frankie Laine, and a recording with Kenny Rogers & the First Edition led to Hobbs joining the pop group as a touring member at age nineteen.

“I quit college and went on the road with them,” Hobbs said. “I’d never been anywhere. My parents didn’t travel, and we’d only eaten in restaurants about twenty times. So it was my first time to be on an airplane and a lot more.”

Hobbs also started working frequently with producer Terry Melcher, an active L.A. producer at the time. He met Melcher’s mother, the actress Doris Day, when Hobbs fractured a leg while climbing rocks in Big Sur, California, near Day’s home. Since he was a friend and colleague of her son’s, Day came to visit Hobbs in the hospital.

“I got treated like royalty at the hospital after that,” Hobbs said with a laugh. “I couldn’t keep the doctors out of my hospital room.”

Hobbs also worked for one day with producer Phil Spector, on a Leonard Cohen session, before quitting because Spector kept waving a loaded gun in the studio. “You might have heard that Phil Spector likes guns,” Hobbs said. “He was really weird and kept waving guns around. At the end of the day, I quit because I was scared.”

Collaborating with Melcher as producer, Hobbs recorded his own project under the band name Freeway. “I always loved Todd Rundgren records, and I could play a little bass and a little guitar, and I fancied that I could play the drums,” Hobbs said. “The idea was that I would play all the instruments myself and build it like that. But I ended up failing at the drums, so we got Ricky Fataar, a well-known drummer, and then we brought in other players too. It became more and more of a collaboration.”

The Freeway album, released in 1979, didn’t sell well, but Lloyd described it as a fine pop album, playing the album cut “Great Song,” a melodic, harmony-laden tune with Hobbs singing lead.

Hobbs first worked with country artists while playing in the house band at the Palomino Club, a Los Angeles nightspot where musicians often gathered. Such country artists as Freddy Fender and Tom T. Hall used the house band when performing at the Palomino, occasionally hiring the band members for other West Coast gigs as well.

By the late 1970s, Hobbs’s session work started to incorporate country music, especially on albums by such country-rock artists as Danny O’Keefe and the first solo album by Randy Meisner, who had just left the Eagles. Hobbs also played on Tanya Tucker’s 1979 crossover album, TNT. “Country music was always part of what I loved,” Hobbs said. “I loved playing it and listening to it.”

In 1980, Hobbs got to record with country legend Merle Haggard, who contributed tracks to the movie Bronco Billy, starring Clint Eastwood. Hobbs’s piano work can be heard in the intro to Haggard’s classic hit “Misery and Gin,” as well as other songs. The track was recorded live on the soundstage at Warner Bros. studios.

As Hobbs explained, gaining entry into regular session work depends mostly on word-of-mouth from other studio professionals. If someone is needed for a certain instrument, another musician might suggest someone he has recently collaborated with in the studio. Once a producer works with a musician and likes what happens, then that producer likely will call the instrumentalist for other sessions.

For example, Hobbs began working with Lionel Richie because of a recommendation from Kenny Rogers, who had recorded Richie’s song “Lady” and made it a #1 hit. Richie was early in his solo career when Hobbs played on the Grammy-winning Can’t Slow Down, a 1983 blockbuster that remains Richie’s best-selling album.

“I met Lionel at a time when he had just left his band [the Commodores], and he was thinking about what he was going to do,” Hobbs said. “We all met him and loved him; he’s a wonderful guy and a ton of fun-and such a great singer.”

About the same time, Hobbs worked with Olivia Newton-John on her best-selling album, Physical. Hobbs revealed how Newton-John’s co-producer, John Farrar, pre-dated drum machines by recording a simple beat on analog tape by drummer Carlos Vega and making a tape-loop of it to run throughout the song’s arrangement.

“This was pre-digital and pre-sampling, so it was kind of crazy,” Hobbs said. “But it was a big old hit, so it was the right decision.”

Hobbs began recording in Nashville by invitation of producer Jimmy Bowen, who, nearly twenty years earlier, had given Hobbs some of his first sessions in L.A. By the mid-1980s, Bowen was the top Nashville executive for MCA Records, and he hired Hobbs to play piano on albums by such stars as Reba McEntire, George Strait, and Hank Williams Jr. From 1984 to 1994, Hobbs flew from California to Nashville to play on sessions.

“I was usually here at least eight-to-ten weeks a year, sometimes more,” Hobbs said. “Usually I’d fly in for a week, that was kind of the formula. You’d do an album in five working days, which is pretty leisurely. Sometimes I’d be booked for two projects back-to-back, and I’d stay two weeks.”

Meanwhile, he continued to work in Los Angeles, on albums with Smokey Robinson and New Edition (whom he once produced). He also began a lucrative career playing the theme songs of such TV shows as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Murphy Brown, and Spenser for Hire. The ACM Awards hired him as musical director, leading the house band while backing many of the same singers he had supported on records. Other TV work included manning the piano in the band for The Late Show with Joan Rivers and on the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon.

But, even with his success, Hobbs grew restless creatively. “I was having really good years in L.A., things were going great,” he recalled. “But my marriage had broken up, and my youngest daughter had graduated from high school. I was producing Collin Raye, and he was having success on the country charts, and I started realizing I really wanted to move to Nashville. Most of my session friends from L.A. had moved here, and I wanted to be here too.”

Hobbs immediately became an even bigger part of the Music Row studio scene. In 1994, country music was more successful than ever, both in sales, in radio play, on television, and in other media. Beyond producing Raye, Hobbs played on major hits by Brooks & Dunn, Deana Carter, Kenny Chesney, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Neal McCoy, and Pam Tillis, among many others.

The Nashville Cats program featured a medley of clips of Hobbs as a member of the Players, a group of Nashville studio specialists that includes Eddie Bayers on drums, Paul Franklin on steel guitar, Brent Mason on electric guitar, and Michael Rhodes on bass. The band initially formed for a CMT special, but went on to record an album and to perform regularly in Nashville.

“But being a studio player in Nashville is like playing in a band with 120 people,” Hobbs said. “They’re all your friends, and you play around together all the time, just in different configurations.”

Hobbs co-produced Vince Gill’s last two albums, including the Grammy-winning, four-disc set, These Days, as well as LeAnn Rimes’s 2011 release, Lady and Gentlemen, in which she performed duets with male singers on classic country songs. As for producers he favors, Hobbs said he prefers those who let bands openly play and assist in figuring out the best licks and arrangements for a new recording.

“I think the best music happens naturally,” Hobbs said. “I think all the questions are answered in the playing. If you have guys who are really good and listen to each other, really neat stuff happens-when they’re not saddled with pre-conceived notions.”

Hobbs ended the program performing “When They Lay Me Down,” a song he co-wrote with Matraca Berg, revealing that he is a fine singer as well as one of the world’s most recorded keyboardists.

-Michael McCall