Ten Favorite Unexpected Cameo Appearances on Songs

Unlikely hidden musical contributions on great records from James Taylor, Springsteen, Zevon, Simon, Ringo, Eurythmics, Rolling Stones and Steve Goodman, featuring Dylan, Waits, Wonder, The Beatles and more.

Through the past decades, there have been countless incidents of unlikely cameo appearances on records, some of which were secret, some were not, but most of which remain unknown to the listening public, even on songs they’ve heard for years. But it’s time for all the secrets to be out. As we began compiling this, it became apparent that there are more of these than we had expected, and some are famous songs.

Some are not famous at all. Not even close.

But all share that ingredient of having someone unexpected on the record. It’s something that happened sometimes purposely, when an artist or a band invites a musician to contribute.

But it also happened, sometimes, simply because the artist’s inclusion had more to do with proximity than purpose, simply the serendipity of unlikely pathways crossing.


Videos by American Songwriter

1. Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London.” Featuring John McVie and Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac.

From Zevon’s second album, Excitable Boy, it was produced by guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who co-wrote the song with him, having fun. Neither took it seriously and didn’t want to include it on the album. That is, until Jackson Browne and others heard it and told them they were crazy. It had to go on. Jackson even performed the song himself in concert before they agreed to record it.

When they did, in order to get the right feel, they tried recording it with several rhythm sections, backing up Zevon on piano and Waddy on guitar. But after trying it several times in different configurations, both were frustrated by their failure to find the right groove which could capture the song’s darkly comic spirit.

That is, until they tried it with a rhythm section that already had some serious success as a bass-drums team under their belts, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, the bass and drums, respectively, for Fleetwood Mac. Not only are both great musicians, they had been playing together for decades, live and in the studio, so could lay down the perfect rhythm section parts with solid soul and integrity.

As soon as the sessions with them began, all worry vanished about getting a good track. And though Zevon did not want it chosen to be the single, as he considered the song a joke, it was the chosen single, and became a hit record, his own major radio hit.

2. Warren Zevon, “Run Straight Down,” featuring David Gilmour.
Zevon, the only artist to have two songs on this list. wrote and recorded “Run Straight Down” for his album Transverse City. It’s about how mankind has poisoned the earth with reckless use of chemicals and more. But from Zevon, he takes what can be dry subject matter to a whole other realm, punctuated by background vocals intoning a litany of toxins found in the water and the earth.

Needing a stinging, visceral lead guitar presence for the track, Zevon an his producer/manager Andy Slater (also the director of Echo in the Canyon), invited Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, one of Warren’s favorite guitarists. Gilmour agreed, but as he was busy in the UK working on new projects, he recorded his parts – which are absolutely resplendent – at Abbey Road in London, where he was working.

Although he did not have music videos of his songs created often, as this was being released as a single, a music video was made. To make up for having to do the recording long-distance, Gilmour agreed to come to America to appear in the video.

This remains the greatest guitar playing on a Zevon album. There was much guitar greatness on his tracks for years, and much by Waddy. But this solo by Gilmour, and the rest, is transcendent.

3. Marianne Faithfull, “As Tears Go By” featuring Jimmy Page

It was one of the first songs Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever wrote together, on the insistence of their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who wanted them to become hit songwriters like Lennon and McCartney. (The Stones were among the first to record a Lennon-McCartney song, “I Wanna Be Your Man.”) Though The Stones recorded their lovely ballad, “As Tears Go By ” themselves later, it was first recorded for Marianne Faithfull, who was 17 at the time.

Although he was uncredited, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin plays guitar on it. His contribution was known but never verified until recently, when he posted his picture with Marianne from that same year, and wrote that “the sensual Marianne had begun her recording career with ‘As Tears Go By’ written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in October 1965.I played on the session, and on a number of Marianne’s sessions at the Decca Studio 2 in London.”

Jimmy Page and Marianne Faithfull, 1965

4. Steve Goodman, “Somebody Else’s Troubles,” featuring Bob Dylan.

Dylan met the late great Chicago heroes Steve Goodman and John Prine when Kris Kristofferson brought both to New York with the aim of getting them record deals. He succeeded. Dylan loved the songs of both, and also the songwriters. He joined Prine onstage at the Bitter End in New York on September 9, 1972. When John first introduced him, the crowd barely reacted. Until they recognized it was the truth, and started cheering.

“It was like a dream,” said John, years later, saying how his song “Donald and Lydia” was Dylan’s favorite, and was based on Dylan’s song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

Dylan also honored Steve Goodman by showing up at recording sessions for Goodman’s second album, Somebody Else’s Troubles, and plays piano and sings harmony on the title track. Although he is credited on the album as Robert Milkwood Thomas, the secret was never really concealed, wisely.

5. The Rolling Stones, “Harlem Shuffle,” featuring Tom Waits

Written by Bob Reif and Earl Nelson and recorded by them originally as Bob & Earl in 1963, it was covered by The Rolling Stones for their Dirty Work album, 1986. It was the first cover released by The Stones since 1965. Keith lit onto the song first and started working on it, doubtful Mick would want to record it, or any covers. But Mick loved the feel of it, and with Steve Lillywhite producing along with The Glimmer Twins (Keith and Mick), he added his great vocal. Needing more sonic spice, they invited some friends to add background vocals. Keith had been hanging out with Tom Waits, and writing songs together, and so invited Tom to come to this party. Waits sings and also injects some intense Waitsian growls into the mix. This marks the first and only time Tom Waits appeared on a record by The Stones.

6. Ringo Starr, “I’m The Greatest.” featuring John Lennon and George Harrison, written by John Lennon.

Lennon wrote the song in 1970, and recorded a demo of it, but didn’t want to record it himself and make this declaration. So he rewrote it slightly and gave it to Ringo, who recorded it in March of 1973 in L.A. A fine ensemble was assembled to play on it: Beatles George Harrison and John Lennon, along with Klaus Voorman standing in for Paul on bass. It was the only time the three Beatles recorded together after their break-up. Produced by Richard Perry, it also features Billy Preston, who played with The Beatles on Let It Be.

7. Paul Simon, “Allergies,” featuring Al Di Meola

“Allergies” was the first single from Paul Simon’s 1983 album Hearts and Bones, produced by Simon with Roy Halee, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman. It features what is the most incendiary electric guitar solo ever included on a Paul Simon album. Furiously fast and fluid, it was played by jazz legend Al DiMeola, who kicks in right after the exhortation, “I can’t breathe!”

8. Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart,” featuring Flo & Eddie
The first single from Springsteen’s 1980 album, The River, it was intended to be a hit single – and succeeded – with a key-change even – produced by Bruce with Steven Van Zandt and Jon Landau. The exultant 1950s-inspired vocal harmonies are performed by Flo & Eddie, AKA Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles, who also performed frequently live and on records with Zappa. One of the last statements to the press ever made by John Lennon in 1980 was that he felt this was a great record, and in the same vein as his own new single, “Starting Over.”

9. James Taylor, “Carolina On My Mind,” featuring Paul McCartney and (maybe) George Harrison.

From James Taylor’s first eponymously-titled album on Apple Records, produced by Peter Asher, “Carolina” is JT’s first quiet masterpiece, a song of being homesick for his home written in England. The first non-British artist signed to Apple, he recorded the album at Trident Studios in London. When not recording his own, he spent some time in the studio with The Beatles as they worked on The White Album, referring to them in the lyrics as “the holy host of others standing around me.” McCartney is credited as bassist, and it has been written that George Harrison sings back-up vocals on it, though is uncredited. Though verified by certain sources, Peter Asher maintains George did not sing on it.

10. Eurythmics, “There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart),” featuring Stevie Wonder.

That it’s the man himself, Stevie Wonder playing that beautiful harmonica solo is no secret, as no other human ever sounded like this. Written by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, and produced by Dave, it was a hit single around the world, British musical duo Eurythmics, released as the second single from their fifth studio album, released in 1985 Be Yourself Tonight. Both Annie and Dave agreed, after writing the song and considering its production, that the ultimate addition to it would be a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. They wanted only that Stevie sound; no other would suffice. Unsure if he would be agreeable or available, they sent a request to his office while recording the song in Los Angeles. To their immense delight, the news arrived that Stevie was in. Told that he would arrive in the evening, Dave and Annie made a mix perfect for Stevie to play over, and awaited the man.

But as anyone who knows anything about Stevie knows, Stevie exists in what is often called “Stevie time.” Which refers to a time only Stevie knows and keeps, unmoored from the usual clock-oriented methods of time-keeping. Midnight passed, but they remained ready. Until about 2 am, when they gave up, and went back to the Sunset Marquis, where they were staying. About two hours later, Dave got a call from the studio saying, “Hey! You guys need to come back. Stevie’s here!”

They got back as soon as they could. Stevie was already playing to the track. After some hellos, Dave suggested Stevie try one. Stevie did one take, which was spectacular. Dave said that was great, let’s try another. Stevie said, “Another? I got it. That’s the one!” As Dave later affirmed, he was right. It was just customary that as great as that was, ask for another. But Stevie, on Stevie-time, delivered.

This song is a beautiful example of Eurythmics’ greatness. Dave and Annie together always could create magic. This song was recorded by a vast range of artists and bands, including Pavoratti. Pavoratti!

The video is inspired, also, featuring Dave as Louie XIII, a role he pulls off with ease.

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