Spooner Oldham: Lord Loves A Session Man

Spooner Oldham, circa 1972.

In the early 1960s, when funk descended upon Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Spooner Oldham was at the forefront of a core group of all-star session men. Acts like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Clarence Carter poured into northern Alabama to sing songs, and a rotating house band cut records with them all. Everybody brought their own dish to the party. That’s a fair analogy for how Oldham approached recording with these artists and with his peers, and a literal take on the title of his album Pot Luck, which originally came out in 1972 and was reissued on Light In The Attic Records this fall. When I met him in Rogersville, Alabama, one late-August afternoon, he was wandering through the parking lot outside a resort lodge on the banks of the Elk River, swishing a styrofoam cup of coffee and wearing a pair of crisp white Converses decorated with Simpsons characters and a button-down shirt dotted with cartoon drawings of sushi. “Yeah, I like sushi,” he says, “but I don’t seek it out like some people do.”

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Oldham is a mild guy, with big, concerned eyes, a kind drawl, and just the one solo record to his name. The label that released Pot Luck, a small operation in Los Angeles called Family Productions, released seven other albums the month that Oldham’s came out and then promptly went bankrupt. “I don’t believe my album ever saw the light of day,” he tells me, as he unhurriedly leads me through the lobby of the lodge. Oldham grew up in Center Star, Alabama. Muscle Shoals, Center Star, and the lodge through which we are now ambling all fall within about a 30-minute drive of each other.

To understand why Pot Luck got so little attention after its initial release, you have to consider that one of Oldham’s greatest strengths is his ability to blend into any recording session and keep pace with any kind of player. He walks the weird line of industry famous and little-known. Called the “secret weapon” of the studio, he’s the brain behind the organ in Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” and the Wurlitzer opening bars to  “I Never Loved A Man.” You’ve definitely heard Oldham’s music on the radio, but if he’s doing his job right, you may not notice him. He is a muscle on the machine of the Swamper sound, whose purpose, at the time, was to buoy one lead up into megastardom.

“I mean, I’m a side man. It’s what I planned to be and what I’m happy to be,” Oldham says. To hear him tell the story, Pot Luck grew out of a jam that simply happened to be lacking a recording artist. After he moved to L.A. at the end of the ’60s, Oldham got a call from Joe Wilson, an Atlanta guy who was trying to put together a house band for a little makeshift studio he’d bought. Oldham wasn’t interested until he heard the lineup: “He had Dennis St. John, a drummer from Atlanta who played a lot with Roy Orbison, so that got my attention,” Oldham says. “There was local L.A. guy Richard Bennet, he was a teenager at the time. And then there was Emory Gordy Jr., who wrote a hit called ‘Traces.’ The producer was going to be Ed Cobb. He’d produced a record called Every Little Bit Hurts, by Brenda Holloway. So that’s when I started getting really interested.”

The album formed along the lines of ‘potluck’’s second definition, as in going in to a new town potluck. Oldham saw the process as an experiment; his new role as a frontman was one he wasn’t particularly prepared for. He couldn’t know exactly what the outcome would be. Oldham takes what luck he can and plays to the strengths of the room, and after his album came out, his prospects as a sideman looked more interesting than his prospects promoting his own album. “The only thing I did press-wise was a local TV show. I sat down at the piano and played one of the songs by myself. That’s the only thing I remember doing in pursuit of that dream,” he recalls.

That song was “Lord Loves A Rolling Stone,” the first track on Pot Luck and one that feels closer to his heart. Oldham declines to name any one genre or another as a favorite, and the record shapeshifts accordingly, though he does seem awfully at home in the lightly gospel-tinged country style of “Lord Loves A Rolling Stone.” “That was a song Dan Penn and I had written a couple days before recording,” Oldham tells me. “The ink was still fresh on that one.”

“Then there was one song that was kind of a country flavored bluegrass thing,” Oldham continues, referring to “Kentucky Grass.” On this track he plays the mandolin, his first instrument. He learned his first few chords from his dad, who played the mandolin and sang tenor in a 7-piece band. The group included two of Oldham’s uncles, too, who sang lead and harmony. It was a sort of family band, and some of Oldham’s first musical memories were of the songs they played. “I was a little toddler listening to them practice,” he says, “and they would have a touch of swing, a touch of Country & Western, a lot of folk, a little taste of bluegrass. That’s where I got the idea that you could mix up musical genres.”

He was chameleon-like in his interpretation of a song, paying close attention to the other people in the studio. Even if it was the same song that he’d already recorded for another artist, it could be two different songs. “Take ‘Tell Mama,’” he gave as an example. “Etta James had that as a hit [in 1968]. But earlier I had played that same record with Clarence Carter [in 1966] as ‘Tell Daddy.’ Same song, two different hits, both out of the same studio.”

“My goal is not to be thrown off by difference,” Oldham says. “Whoever, whatever walked into the studio, I wanted to be open to the thought that I could play along with what they were doing. I like both [making good music and meeting good people],” he tells me, “and I usually end up with both. I’ll have a friend and a good song.”

Side B of Pot Luck is an instrumental semi-medley that floats through some of the most recognizable songs to which Oldham contributed — “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “I Never Loved A Man,” “Cry Like A Baby” and “Respect” —with a piano or organ line where the vocals would be. It feels like a train of thought, half improvised, half muscle memory, in which Oldham’s scrolling through the highlights of his career, playing around with his favorite lines, then skipping over to the next song he thinks of. “I think I just wanted to play little bits and pieces of things, as I was going through memories,” Oldham says.

Recorded in 1972, those memories couldn’t have included fully the pop career Oldham went on to have after he left Alabama for L.A. in 1968. He toured with Neil Young and Bob Dylan, recorded with the Flying Burrito Brothers, and played piano for Jewel’s debut album Pieces Of You. And yet the Muscle Shoals sound is the abiding takeaway from his career; the songs on Pot Luck’s side B are still representative of Oldham’s legacy.

Oldham describes the Muscle Shoals sound as “a table I sat at for a long time,” and when the era ended, he was glad to try something new. I asked what prompted him to leave Alabama and move to L.A. He got married, he says, and was ready for a change. Another reason was Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination: that event created a distance between the white rhythm section and the black singers who recorded with them in a way he couldn’t qualify. “We didn’t change, and the black folks didn’t change,” Oldham explains, “but something in the air changed.” Oldham didn’t think about race prior to the assassination, because the explosion of music coming out of Muscle Shoals was working so well. “My guess was it started getting really big. Prior to Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved A Man,’ it wasn’t race music. Then it became more mainstream American music. It wasn’t under the counter stuff anymore. And the powers that be got greedy. The picture was looking pretty good, and they wanted in on it.”

In October of 2011, Oldham ran into Aretha Franklin for the first time since he’d left Alabama. They were in Cleveland. He was in a house band; she was getting an honorary doctorate degree from Case Western University. “Even more important than the paycheck was if I could see Aretha. I saw her coming out of a coffee shop in the lobby, surrounded by her security people. I knew she was going to be busy all day, so I just walked up to her and said hello. She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘How long has it been?’ And I said, ‘About 40 years.’”

Despite being recognized by one of the most respected musicians on the planet, Spooner Oldham is still a sideman, still relatively unknown to the mainstream listening public. So what would happen if Pot Luck came up a hit in its own right this time around? Oldham laughed when I asked him. “I’d call you up,” he says, “and say, I’m going on the road, come stop in at the party when I’m nearby you.”

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