Ry Cooder as a session player: Top 10 moments

By Sergio Ariza

Ry Cooder is one of the best slide guitarists of all time. His unique, inimitable style makes him, arguably one of the four absolute pillars of this style together with Blind Willie Johnson (his biggest inspiration), Elmore James and Duane Allman. His work is linked to grassroots music, be it blues, folk, country, Tex-Mex, or Caribbean, with some important work on his own, but also he is one of the most important session players in history. Here we will highlight 10 of his best collaborations, focussing on his talent as session player, avoiding so when he is the subject himself, part of a band (Rising Sons, or Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band), or responsible for a project, as in the legendary Buena Vista Social Club sessions.  

The Rolling Stones/Marianne Faithfull - Sister Morphine (1971, recorded in 1969)

The Rolling Stones had been tracking Cooder since his days with the Rising Sons, so his name was on the top of the list when they saw that Brian Jones would no longer be with the band. Cooder was called to London to work on the soundtrack of Performance, the movie in which Mick Jagger made his acting debut. His incredible slide work shines brightly on Memo from Turner, the most outstanding song on the record, and shows us how the Stones would have sounded with Cooder as guitarist. But as everyone knows, Cooder wasn’t chosen to be a Rolling Stone and that was because he was bad-mouthing the Englishmen, saying Keith Richards had stolen his riff on Honky Tonk Woman, among other things. His sessions with the Stones leave proof such as the long ‘jam’ where he plays with Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, featuring Nicky Hopkins on piano, and the Stones would release it on their label in 1972 under the name Jamming with Edward!. Much more important is his appearance on two of the bands key records, Let It Bleed, where he played the mandolin on Love In Vain, and the remarkable slide work on Sister Morphine, a track on Sticky Fingers.  He had already sat in on the original recording of the piece with author of the lyrics Marianne Faithfull, a version where besides Cooder, Jagger plays acoustic, Watts on drums, and Jack Nitzsche on piano. His ‘bottleneck’ bit will give you goosebumps, and is most certainly recorded with the legendary Fender Stratocaster Daphne Blue from 1967, which he made many modifications on.

Crazy Horse - I Don't Want to Talk About It (1971)

Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina had been playing together since 1963, and in ‘68 they were all part of a band called The Rockets when Neil Young signed them on as his backup band and renamed them Crazy Horse, after sitting in with him on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and part of After the Goldrush, the trio decided to set out on their own again, but this time they were accompanied by various musicians friends of the Canadian, the pianist and arranger Jack Nitzsche, the young prodigy guitarist Nils Lofgren, and none other than Ry Cooder, who leaves his mark on slide in three songs on the splendid record, Dirty Dirty, Crow Jane Lady, and I Don’t Want to Talk About It. He plays electric on the first two, while on the third, the best of the lot, with his unique slide on acoustic. The song is one of the best of Danny Whitten’s short career, with him and Lofgren on acoustics (the last one almost surely with a Martin D-18, a gift from Young), and Cooder underlying the sorrowful vocals with his slide work.


Little Feat - Willin´ (1971)

In December 1970 Ry Cooder released his first solo album, where he appears with Richie Hayward and Roy Estrada, the rhythm section from Little Feat, a group led by guitarist Lowell George who had just left Zappas Mothers of Invention after writing Willin’. The story about why Zappa threw him out of the band is one of these: the song was too good for him to continue to be an accompanying musician , it made references to drugs, which Zappa didn’t like, or my favourite (yet the most improbable), George scored a guitar solo of over 15 minutes with the amp turned off. In fact Little Feat were recording their debut, and their most memorable song, when, George, a great slide guitarist in his own right, cut his hand. They didn’t hesitate on who to call up, so that’s how Ry Cooder plays the slide part on the original of this mythic song. It must be said though that in the end, George would wind up giving it another try by recording the song again on his next record Sailin’ Shoes. But Cooder was there and also played in the medley of songs by Howlin’ Wolf: Forty-Four Blues/How Many More Years.  

Randy Newman - Last Night I Had a Dream (1972)

Among all the artists Ry Cooder played with, his most profitable relationship was with Randy Newman, from the very first moment they got together on Gone Dead Train, on the soundtrack of Performance, the magic was always present. Cooder especially glows in 12 Songs, on tracks such as Mama Told Me Not to Come, and Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield, not to mention his appearance on Back On My Feet Again from the Good Old Boys, or You Can Leave Your Hat On from Sail Away. But my favourite is the marvelous Last Night I Had a Dream (Sail Away), where his slide  creates an atmosphere that fits perfectly to Newman’s lyrics, with just a few notes, doing a splendid example of “less is more. When Newman speaks of “a vampireand a “ghost” appearing in his dream, they are felt present behind the menacing notes from Cooder.  


The Everly Brothers - Green River (1973)

In 1973 the Everly Brothers were more than sick of singing, night after night, their old hits from the 50s and early 60s in Vegas. They were still releasing records but the audience didn't seem to care, although they still put out great songs during the British Invasion, and even they were between the first to join on to the emerging  country/rock movement with a great album (Roots form 1968). Stories We Could Tell sees them expressing that frustration, as in the explicit I’m Tired of Singing My Song in Vegas by Don Everly, alongside the cream of session musicians in Los Angeles. Without a doubt, the most interesting contribution is what Cooder does on his signature slide on Green River, another cult classic in their long career.  

Doobie Brothers - Rainy Day Crossroad Blues (1975)

In 1974 the Doobie Brothers were reinforced with the addition of ex-Steely Dan man Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, if that was not enough, the following year they recorded their first album with him, Stampede, and they opted to call Ry Cooder to give that slide touch to the cowboy wail of Crossroad Rainy Day Blues. It’s a perfect vehicle to see Cooder shine in his particular style. For the acoustic bits Cooder normally uses a Gibson Roy Smeck from the mid-30s, although he also has a Martin 000-18 from the 50s, with which he recorded his most memorable song, the title cut from the soundtrack Paris, Texas.    

Van Morrison - Full Force Gale (1979)

In 1979 Morrison returned in top form with the splendid Into The Music, the best he had put out since the Tupelo Honey days. On one of the most outstanding songs, a kind of gospel where Morrison is “lifted up by the Lord”, he decided to have a brief but intense solo by Cooder.  

Eric Clapton - The Shape You're In (1983)

Money and Cigarettes was Eric Clapton’s first record after recovery from alcoholism. Producer Tom Dowd advised him to get rid of his band, except the indispensable Albert Lee, and find the best sessions players possible. So they brought in people like Donald “Duck” Dunn, Roger Hawkins and our protagonist who seemed to inject new blood into ‘Slow Hand’, as the two songs where he is most preeminent on slide, Everybody Oughta Make a Change, and The Shape You’re In, are the best on the album. We’re not sure if Clapton used the red Stratocaster that we see him shredding on the cover, but what is clear is, there are moments when the lost fire returns to his playing.


The Textones (Carla Olson) - Clean Cut Kid (1984)

Carla Olson had a long list of admirers among the rock stars when she was in her band The Textones. Eventually she would record albums with people like Gene Clark and Mick Taylor, as well as working alongside Don Henley, Eric Clapton and John Fogerty.  Also among her fans was Bob Dylan, who used her in his first video, Sweetheart Like You. To return the favour the Minnesota bard gave her this song, Clean Cut Kid, which gave Cooder (another Olsen fan) the chance to play the slide on one of the most rocking songs of his career.

John Hiatt - Lipstick Sunset (1987)

In 1987 they asked John Hiatt to name his dream band, without blinking he said Ry Cooder on guitar, bassman Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner on drums. Sometimes, dreams come true, it turns out the three of them were available and willing to play with Hiatt. And of course, he got right to work and would record his best collection of songs to date, things like Memphis In The Meantime, Thing Called Love, and Have a Little Faith in Me. But the moment when Cooder is in top form is the delicate Lipstick Sunset, where his guitar will make you hair stand on end with its beauty. For you to understand how much I like this album, I would say it is the first record (on a par with 12 Songs by Randy Newman) I would recommend to anyone who asks me about Cooder, even over his remarkable solo work. And it’s the perfect combination, the songs and vocals of Hiatt serve as the perfect ride for Cooder who always had the midas touch, playing pure eloquence to Hiatt’s melody, squeezing out the most emotion possible... But Bonnie Raitt liked Thing Called Love and described Cooder’s style as “the most frightening sound, dark and sexy that I could imagine. It worked so well that in the early 90s the four musicians would get back together forming a band called Little Village. There he would bring out his Coodercaster, a Stratocaster from the 60s, heavily modified, with a Buddy Holly body and the neck, according to stories, from a Japanese Squier.