The man who makes guitars cry

By Sergio Ariza

Ryland Peter Cooder, born the 15th of March, 1947, was already playing guitar at the age of 3. This Ry Cooder is able to play any chorded instrument just by looking at it. But despite this ability to play several instruments, he will always be associated with the ‘slide’ guitar, where he is with Duane Allman and Elmore James, its best representative. Not much for razzle dazzle, every note on his slide guitar carries his DNA and is 100% recognisable. You could call him one of the greatest guitarists unknown to the public. Although it’s quite likely they heard him play, without knowing his name, on incredible session takes with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, or Randy Newman, on all his soundtracks, such as the iconic ‘Paris Texas’, or his embrace of Cuban music on ‘Buena Vista Social Club’. 

Ry Cooder has always been outside the spotlight, even though he almost became the substitute for Brian Jones of the Stones, and was gaining popular success on various occasions. He didn’t have the best of luck, at 4 he lost an eye playing with a knife, but what’s clear is that once he plays slide guitar, electric or acoustic, he becomes the main man, pulling focus on whoever plays lead.  

His career started early, as a teen he formed a bluegrass group together with Bill Monroe, author of ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, made popular by Elvis Presley. Cooder was playing banjo at the time, an experience he later used to play his guitar. His first recordings would be in 1966 with the Rising Sons band, in which the great Taj Mahal was a member. He had begun to make a name for himself, and that’s how he landed his first catch, and his first electric guitar. In 1967 the label Buddha signed Captain Beefheart for his first record. Before recording, however, Beefheart choose to make changes in his band, The Magic Band, by adding the services of a young Cooder. After deciding to accept the offer, young Ry who was about to turn 20, went with the rest of the band to the Fender factory where the company let them choose the equipment they wanted. Cooder only played  blues, folk and acoustic country, and  had never even had an electric guitar in his hands until that moment. He fell in love with one just for its colour, a Fender Stratocaster Daphne Blue from 1967, and despite being picked just on looks, it became his instrument of choice for years. He recorded his first solo albums with it.      

The first big impression he left was on the great ‘Safe as Milk’.  Just to hear the first few notes of 'Sure Nuff 'n' Yes, I Do' , no one would say that this was practically a rookie but a maestro instead, electrifying the best spirited Delta blues. The band was called to glory and their next step was the Monterey Festival, the first big open-air festival of the 1960s’ rock. But 5 days before the event, at another gig, Don Van Vliet (Beefheart’s real name) fell headfirst from the stage, saying later he thought he had seen “a girl turning into a fish”. Cooder decided on the spot it was time to quit the band and the show in Monterey was cancelled. It was the first time that success pursued him without reaching him, but it wouldn’t be the most significant.  

After working as a session musician on debut albums of Neil Young and Taj Mahal’s solo bid, or the ‘Head’ soundtrack of The Monkees, Cooder was given his greatest break when he was called from England by the Rolling Stones. Brian Jones had just been let go and Ry was the band's favourite to take his place. Keith Richards invited him to his house in Chichester and Cooder began recording straight away with the mythic Stones piece Let it Bleed, and the soundtrack to Performance with Jagger and Jack Nitzsche. But things didn’t work out and Cooder left the sessions thinking that they had stolen his riff for Honky Tonk Woman.  What happened there isn’t  very clear, but what’s evident is that it was Cooder who taught Richards open G tuning for the 5-string that he would use on many of his own songs like the one mentioned or Gimme Shelter. Of course Cooder didn’t become a Rolling Stone, that job was for Mick Taylor, but the session recordings can attest to his marvelous slide guitar on Sister Morphine, which came up again on Sticky Fingers, and his mandolin on Love in Vain, the excellent Performance soundtrack (which includes his tasty work on Memo from Turner), or the jam session Jamming with Edward that the Stones released on their label in 1972, and has Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts together with Cooder and pianist Nancy Hopkins, while waiting for Richards.  

Despite the bad aftertaste in his mouth, Cooder got a recording contract with Warner Bros., and in December of 1970, released his debut album, simply called Ry Cooder.  A work in which the roots of rock and blues go hand in hand while putting out  songs like Do Re Mi or his cover of My Old Kentucky Home by the great Randy Newman, whom he had met while recording Performance and would require his services on 3 big Newman’s albums, 12 Songs, Sail Away, and Good Old Boys, and on gems such as Last Night I Had a Dream or You Can Leave Your Hat On. On this first record, he is  accompanied by the rhythm section of Little Feat, Richie Hayward and Roy Estrada, and he also helped them on their debut, playing the slide guitar on the first version of their best  known song Willin’.

Into The Purple Valley
and Boomer’s Story would be his next solo work in 1972. Blues is still leading the way, but Cooder dabbles in other areas such as rural country, a version of Hey Porter by Johnny Cash, and Woody Guthrie folk with his Vigilante Man, of his first ventures into Caribbean sounds (years before Buena Vista Social Club) with the calypso F.D.R. in Montreal. On Boomer’s Story, he gets closer to Mexican music and Tex Mex on his version of María Elena.   

His masterpiece would arrive in 1974 with Paradise and Lunch, those amazing touch-ups of old songs are still there but the palette gets richer including more contemporary numbers like It’s All Over Now by Bobby Womack, or Burt Bacharach’s Mexican Divorce, besides the essential songs from his repertoire like Tattler. But of course, the moment a musician like Ry Cooder must have really enjoyed is at the end of Ditty Wah Ditty, where he plays a duo with none other than Earl Hines, one of the Fathers of jazz. In 1976 he put out another of his cornerstone records, Chicken Skin Music, with a Hawaiian and Mexican feel with the wonderful Flaco Jimenez on accordion without forgetting the blues on fabulous songs like Smack Dab in the Middle. But despite it all, fame still dodged him, and he kept going with his solo work along with collaborating with the likes of the Doobie Brothers, Arlo Guthrie, Linda Ronstadt or Van Morrison. By then his second guitar was already in hand, another 60s Stratocaster all souped up by Cooder himself by adding ‘different’ pieces, including the body of a Buddy Holly. 

In the 80s, with the need for commercial success, Cooder started composing soundtracks. Among some of the most prominent were Forajidos de Leyenda, Calles de Fuego, Cocktail, and two of the most significant, Crossroads and Paris Texas. His work on Wim Wenders film is one of the most marked of his career, with dry moving notes evoking the vivid imagery of the Mojave Desert on his 1950s Martin 000-18. There were also select appearances on albums by Eric Clapton or his great work on Bring The Family by John Hiatt

The 90s would have him flirting with 'world music'  on two of his most known efforts, Talking Timbuktu, a collaboration with African Guitarist Ali Farka Touré and the Buena Vista Social Club project, where he gathered and recorded with great Cuban musicians like Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer or Compay Segundo, whose Chan Chan is the jewel of the record. 

The 21st century has seen his first record in 18 years, the remarkable Chávez Ravine from 2005, besides the two other records that complete the California concept trilogy My Name is Buddy, and I, Flathead, as well as his two most political to date, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Election Special. His fame is still not up to his immense talent, but Ry Cooder is one of those few men who can make a guitar cry, just check out the title song on Paris Texas, which is much stronger than one’s name or face in the public domain.

(Images: ©CordonPress)