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Session man

Hugh McCrackenHugh McCracken, the great New York session guitarist who contributed to recordings by Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, the Monkees and countless others, including all four Beatles, died on March 28, aged 70. Most of the obituaries, including this one in the New York Times, carried the anecdote about John Lennon meeting McCracken for the first time at the “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” session in October 1971 and, on learning that he’d played on Paul McCartney’s Ram earlier that year, telling him: “You know that was just an audition to get to play with me.”

The quote came directly from an interview with McCracken himself, but he didn’t get it exactly right. What happened that evening at the Record Plant was that Lennon was introduced to the group of guitarists who, playing acoustic instruments, were going to lay down the basic track for the song, according to the formula required by Phil Spector. All but one of them were young and inexperienced.

He asked them for their names. “Chris.” “Stu.” “Teddy.” “Hugh.” Lennon turned to Yoko Ono and said, “Hey, Yoko, doesn’t Hugh look just like Ivan?” Yoko didn’t respond. “Hugh, you look just like a mate of mine from school. A cross between him and Paul.”

He was referring to Ivan Vaughan, the friend who played bass guitar with the Quarrymen and introduced Lennon to McCartney at Woolton village fete that famous July day in 1957. Vaughan had known Lennon since childhood and had gone to school with McCartney, with whom he shared a birthdate. He studied classics at university, became a teacher, and was later engaged by the Beatles to develop an education project on Apple’s behalf. He was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson’s disease in 1977 and died in 1993.

A little later, during a break, someone told Lennon about McCracken’s impressive record as a session man, including his contribution to McCartney’s second solo album a few months earlier.

“Oh,” Lennon responded. “So you were just auditioning on Ram, were you?”

If you think I’m splitting hairs here, you’re probably correct. But we might as well get the verbatim right for posterity’s benefit, if there’s going to be a posterity.

McCracken was a first-choice session man who could nevertheless often be found playing the less glamorous rhythm parts behind guitarists with bigger reputations. But if I had to pick a highlight from his career in the studio, it would probably be Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, a track from Gaucho (1980), to which he contributes a startling intro and a discreet but beautifully shaped short solo.

* The photograph of McCracken is taken from http://www.jimmyvivino.com — the website of the guitarist who leads the house band on Conan O’Brien’s late-night chat show on TBS, the US cable channel.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Peter #

    Every once in a while I have to play Hey Nineteen, and inevitably repeat the intro 3 or 4 times before letting the track play. His playing and tone on that track is beyond-guitar, just a magic sound presence. If I’d contributed by making him a cup of tea on that session, or getting him a chair, I’d be proud!

    April 11, 2013
  2. Val Wilmer #

    Back in the mid-1960s I attended a ‘secret’ recording session in which Hugh McCracken participated, at a studio in Bond Street (Advision?). The other participants were bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Herbie Lovelle, an old friend — he invited me — and the producer was Denny Cordell. Star of the session was organist Matthew Fisher of Procul Harum, but it was all very much “off the books” because of union prohibitions against American musicians working in Britain. I have never read anything about this session and, indeed, have often wondered who else the trio recorded with during their stay because they were in London for at least three or four days.
    Val Wilmer

    April 11, 2013

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