As a first-call bass guitarist in Los Angeles in the second half of the 1960s, Joe Osborn played on some of the era’s most memorable hits, including “California Dreamin'”, “Windy” and “MacArthur Park”. Osborn, who died at his home in Lousiana on December 14, aged 81, formed a particularly strong partnership in the Hollywood studios with the pianist Larry Knechtel and the drummer Hal Blaine.
Born in Mound, Louisiana, Osborn started life as a guitarist and spent two years playing with Bob Luman in Las Vegas before joining Ricky Nelson’s band in 1960 and moving to LA. Since the guitarist was James Burton, Osborn switched to bass and played on such Nelson hits as “Travellin’ Man”. In 1964 his studio career had already begun when he became part of the minimalist rhythm section on the Lou Adler-produced Johnny Rivers at the Whisky A Go Go, whose party vibe, captured by the engineer Bones Howe, made it — and the single taken from it, Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” — a giant hit. Osborn went on to play on many more of Rivers’ (now underrated) albums, right up to LA Reggae and Blue Suede Shoes in the early ’70s, and on many of Howe’s subsequent productions, usually alongside Blaine. “Hal and Joe had the lock and the feel,” Howe said in Harvey Kubernik’s book Turn Up the Radio!
He played a Fender Jazz Bass, whose narrow neck suited his fingers, mostly with a pick. Apparently he didn’t change his flat-wound strings for 20 years. There was plenty of competition on his instrument in the Hollywood studios — from Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman, Lyle Ritz, the multi-talented Knechtel and others, some of them with jazz training — but he was valued for his southern rock ‘n’ roll chops. His later work included Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (with Knechtel on piano) and all the 5th Dimension’s hits, including “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Let the Sunshine In/Aquarius” and the sublime “One Less Bell to Answer”.