Oh, please stay just a little bit more

There’s an important truth about the famous singer-songwriters whose names have appeared on the charts and theater marquises over the years: By and large, their music was made much more interesting and dynamic because of the contributions of incredibly talented session musicians and touring sidemen.

To the public at large, even to many music lovers, these superb instrumentalists are mostly anonymous. Their peers in the music business know who they are — these unsung heroes who play guitars, fiddles, saxes, keyboards and percussion to fill out the arrangements of songs written by the main recording artist — but the majority of the listening audience doesn’t have a clue and probably doesn’t much care.

So the passing of the extraordinarily gifted David Lindley earlier this month most likely went unnoticed by casual music fans, even those who have enjoyed his playing without knowing who he was.

Take my word for it: If you loved the music of the acts coming out of Laurel Canyon and greater Los Angeles in the 1970s, you most definitely have heard Lindley’s work. Best known for his many appearances on records and on tour with Jackson Browne, Lindley was also an important collaborator with Graham Nash, David Crosby, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon and a few dozen other major and minor artists in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond.

Because I’m an aficionado (read: music trivia nerd) who absorbs all sorts of information about the albums I’ve bought and the artists I’ve seen in concert, I’m one of the exceptions to the rule. I’ve been aware of Lindley’s name since at least 1972 when it appeared on the credits of Browne’s debut LP, and I’ve made note of his musical contributions ever since. He was a master of so many stringed instruments, most notably lap steel guitar, fiddle and mandolin, and the accompaniment he provided was essential to countless classic tracks.

Take a moment and peruse this list:

Nine Browne LPs: “Saturate Before Using” (1972), “For Everyman” (1973), “Late For the Sky” (1974), “The Pretender (1976), “Running on Empty” (1977), “Hold Out” (1980), “Lives in the Balance (1986), “World in Motion” (1989), “I’m Alive” (1993) and “Looking East” (1996)

Five Zevon albums: “Warren Zevon” (1976), “Sentimental Hygiene” (1987), “Transverse City” (1989), “Mutineer” (1994) and “The Wind” (2003)

Ronstadt’s “Heart Like A Wheel” (1974), “Prisoner in Disguise” (1975) and “Simple Dreams” (1977)

Three Nash solo LPs: “Songs For Beginners” (1971), “Wild Tales” (1973) and “Earth and Sky” (1980)

Ry Cooder’s “Jazz” (1978) and “Bop ‘Til You Drop” (1979)

Crosby & Nash’s “Wind On the Water” (1975) and “Whistling Down the Wire” (1976)

Shawn Colvin’s “Fat City” (1992)

James Taylor’s “In the Pocket” (1976)

Maria Muldaur’s 1973 debut

Karla Bonoff’s “Restless Nights” (1979)

Various LPs by America, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, John Prine, Marshall Crenshaw, Emmylou Harris, Joe Walsh and Leo Sayer

The guy seemed to be everywhere, largely in a subtle, understated way, providing sweet lap steel guitar passages, lovely fiddle phrasings and distinctive slide guitar solos. That’s the important characteristic of the very best session musicians: They play TO the song and the arrangement, bringing just the right amount of finesse that the track required, no more and no less.

One reason certain musicians are in such high demand for recording sessions is they have shown time and time again that they are reliably proficient at their instrument and how to provide just the right atmosphere and the combination of notes, sustains and rests. In L.A. in the ’70s, if you wanted fiddle in the mix, your first call was to Lindley. Mandolin? Lindley again. Slide guitar? Lap steel guitar? Plain ol’ acoustic guitar? You just never went wrong when Lindley was in your studio.

Perhaps his most recognizable bit was the slide guitar that was prominently featured on Browne’s 1977 Top Ten tune “Running on Empty” and made it such an enduring hit, capturing both the exhilaration and exhaustion of life on the road. Lindley also had his moment of comic relief on that album and tour when he sang the exaggerated falsetto in the middle of Browne’s cover of the 1962 chestnut “Stay.”

My favorite Lindley contribution came in “For a Dancer,” Browne’s heartbreaking 1974 tearjerker about a friend who had died. Lindley’s fiddle part throughout tugs at the listener’s heartstrings in such an integral way that it’s near impossible to imagine the song without it. Go back five years earlier to The Youngbloods’ intense “Darkness, Darkness” and you’ll hear a young Lindley’s fiddle adding just the right mystical touch to that song, later re-recorded by its composer, Jesse Colin Young.

Even Bruce Springsteen made use of Lindley’s talents, although it took a long time for us to hear it. That’s his fiddle gracing the alternate take of “Racing in the Streets,” found on the 2010 package “The Promise,” a track originally from Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” LP.

So where did this instrumental wunderkind come from? Lindley was born and raised in San Marino, an LA suburb near Pasadena, the son of a music enthusiast who exposed him to a broad range of musical genres and instruments through an extensive record collection. Korean folk music, Indian sitar albums, West Virginia bluegrass, Greek bouzouki, Bakersfield country music — all of it and more made an impact on Lindley from a young age. He was only four when he started playing violin, then ukulele by six, guitar at eight and banjo at 11.

He was a voracious student of the musical styles and techniques he was hearing and sought to emulate them on a wide array of stringed instruments. “I even opened up the upright piano in the playhouse out in back of my parents’ house to get at the strings and see how they worked,” he recalled in a 2008 interview. He said he had no idea how many different instruments he could play, but a photo taken for Acoustic Guitar magazine in 2000 (see below) gives a pretty good indication. From dulcimer to autoharp, from the Middle Eastern our to the Turkish saz, Lindley could coax amazing sounds from them all.

David Lindley and his collection of instruments

As a teen, he won the Topanga Canyon Banjo/Fiddle Contest five straight years, and often frequented the Ash Grove and Troubadour clubs to hear some of the more eclectic genres not necessarily in vogue on the radio. It was there that he formed a bond with Ry Cooder, who shared his love for folk and roots music.

Lindley soon partnered with Chris Darrow and others to form a band called Kaleidoscope that offered “psychedelic folk,” and although their albums barely charted, they were favorites of such major influencers as Jimmy Page (who called them “my ideal band, absolutely brilliant”) and San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue. At the bottom of this piece, I’ve included a handful of Kaleidoscope tracks in a diverse Spotify playlist that chronicles Lindley’s recorded legacy.

Following that project, Lindley spent a couple of years in England playing with guitarist/singer Terry Reid before returning to L.A., where he became fast friends with Browne just as his star was beginning to rise. His work on Browne’s records (check out the slide guitar on “The Fuse” from 1976’s “The Pretender”) attracted the attention of Nash, Crosby, Ronstadt, Taylor and others.

Lindley left Browne’s band after the 1980 “Hold Out” tour, largely because Browne encouraged him to branch out. “I thought he should be appreciated in his own right,” said Browne in 2010, “but there were times when I thought it was the craziest and stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

Lindley’s 1981 LP “El Rayo-X”

In 1981, Lindley’s one brush with commercial success came with his solo debut, “El Rayo-X,” one of the most eccentric and wildly disparate albums of its time. With the help of seasoned players like Bill Payne, Garth Hudson and Bob Glaub, and Browne adding some vocals, Lindley offered up funk, snarling blues, vintage rock & roll, Cajun, Zydeco, reggae and Middle Eastern rhythms, and it reached a modest #81 on the US album charts.

For a guy who found himself in the vortex of Southern California hedonistic excess, Lindley kept all of that at arm’s length. On tour, when most of the band and entourage were partying hard at after-show gatherings, Lindley tended to retreat to his hotel room with an instrument or two, always looking for new ways to inject life into a song. “There are all sorts of variations,” he once said. “Some fans don’t get it. They say, ‘What you do is so good — why don’t you guys just keep playing like that?’ But when I see that exotic cheesecake in the glass case, I think, ‘I want to try that. It looks really good.’ I’m always looking to experiment with new sounds, new ways of playing things.”

In the wake of Lindley’s passing March 3rd at age 78, a number of his compatriots emerged with words of praise. “One of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known,” Graham Nash wrote. “David could play pretty much any instrument you put in front of him with incredible versatility and expression. He was truly a musician’s musician.”

“Lindley’s unique sound and style,” said guitarist Peter Frampton, “gave him away in one note.”

Warren Haynes, who played guitar for The Allman Brothers Band from 1989 to 2014, had this to say: “His lap steel playing in particular was a big influence on me. Often times when I’m approaching a song or solo in a major key, Lindley’s influence will appear automatically. His style was so vocalesque, and his sense of melody was a deep well. His solos became part of the song to the point where even non-musicians could hum along.”

R.I.P., Mr. Lindley. Your contributions have not gone unnoticed by your peers (nor by me and those who read this blog)…


The smell of death surrounds you

October 20, 1977. Gene Odom, bodyguard for Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and the band’s head of security, got into a heated argument with pilot Walter McCreary. The 1948 Conair twin-prop plane the band had been using for most of its tour was scheduled to depart Greenville, North Carolina shortly for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the next stop on their concert tour.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, circa 1976 (L-R): Leon Wilkeson, Allen Collins, Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Artemus Pyle (rear), Steve Gaines, Billy Powell

The previous day on the flight from Lakeland, Florida to Greenville, flames had been observed shooting out of the plane’s right engine during the flight. Odom insisted the pilot should have the matter investigated in Greenville, but McCreary said his mechanic would be meeting them in Baton Rouge, where repairs would be made. “No, man,” Odom protested. “We’ve got a day off between shows. Have a mechanic check it here today.” McCreary refused, telling Odom to back down or be removed from the flight. “You’re a fool,” Odom angrily told McCreary.

The band and its entourage took off, and 20 minutes into the 600-mile flight, first one engine and then the other failed. It turned out they were out of fuel, which couldn’t be detected in the cockpit because the fuel gauges were broken. An emergency landing was attempted in Mississippi, but the plane clipped multiple pine trees 200 yards short of a landing strip, crashing into dense, swampy forest.

The wreckage of the band’s ill-fated Conair flight in Mississippi

Six people were killed, including Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, singer Cassie Gaines, road manager Dean Kirkpatrick and both pilots. The rest of the band — guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and drummer Artemus Pyle — were all seriously injured with punctured organs, broken bones and deep emotional scars.

For Lynyrd Skynyrd, who had been riding an ever-broadening wave of success since their debut LP in 1973, it proved to be a devastating blow. The survivors chose to disband. Although various lineups made new albums and returned to live performances years later, they were clearly never the same after that fateful trip.

Rossington, at age 71, the last surviving original member, died this week of complications from a heart condition. As one fan commented mournfully on the group’s website, “They’re all together now.”


I’ve always been mostly ambivalent about Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their brand of Southern fried boogie rock was competent enough, even exceptional at times, but I could never get past their unabashed Dixie leanings, especially the insufferable hit single “Sweet Home Alabama,” with its apparent support of segregationist George Wallace. I’ve been revisiting the band’s catalog the past several days, and I have concluded it’s a damn shame that too many people know the group mostly for that grossly overplayed, simplistic ditty. Truth be told, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first five LPs (the pre-crash era) are chock full of great tracks, but as is too often the case with classic rock bands, their exposure is limited to just three or four songs played ad nauseum.

“Freebird,” of course, is in a category by itself. It ranks up there with Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as a fine song so completely ruined by overexposure that it became a joke perpetuated by drunks at wedding receptions. I know I’m not alone in saying I would be very happy to never hear either of these songs ever again.

The band in August 1977

But damn, when you listen to the musicianship on Skynyrd’s repertoire, it’s abundantly clear that these guys were loaded with instrumental talent, and played like the proverbial well-oiled machine when they were at their peak. Case in point: Check out their scorching cover of J. J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” from their strong “Second Helping” album, or “I Know a Little,” the infectious track Gaines wrote for their “Street Survivors” album. This was one vibrant boogie-rock band that deserved its success.

They may have been long-haired hippies who got in their share of trouble at the Jacksonville, Florida, high school where they met, in the mid-’60s, but they developed a strong work ethic and a passion for what they were doing. Even in their earlier incarnations as My Backyard, The Noble Five and The One Percent, these guys worked hard. Van Zant was notorious for insisting the group rehearse for untold hours to ensure their performances at parties, dances and clubs would be tight and precise.

The story behind their choice of the name Lynyrd Skynyrd is well known. They selected it in mock parody of their former gym teacher Leonard Skinner, who had given them a hard time about their long hair, but they thought it would be wise to alter the spelling to prevent any legal entanglements. What I didn’t know is that the name also came, in part, from a line in musical comedian Allan Sherman’s hit novelty single from the early ’60s called “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” written as a letter home from a boy at summer camp where things weren’t going so well. One verse says, “You remember Leonard Skinner? He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner!”

By 1972, the band had a decent regional following in the Deep South. At an Atlanta club called Funochio’s, rock producer/musician Al Kooper was impressed enough by their act to sign them to his new Sounds of the South label, to be distributed by MCA Records. Guitarists Collins and Rossington came up with engaging melodies and memorable riffs while Van Zant penned the lyrics, and with Kooper manning the studio boards, the group came up with a dynamic debut LP entitled, awkwardly, “Pronounced ‘Lėh-‘nérd ‘Skin-nérd.” FM stations nationwide were attracted to the interesting blend of country boogie and Southern soul inherent in eventual classics like “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man” and “Gimme Three Steps.” Meanwhile, “Freebird,” which clocked in at well over nine minutes, took on a life of its own, thanks to Rossington’s deft slide guitar on the song proper and Collins’s quicksilver soloing on the four-minute second half.

Collins, Van Zant and Rossington in concert, 1975

Said Rossington in the 1990s, “We always said we had a lot of balls back then, or gumption, whatever you call it, for playing a song that long. Singles are only three, four minutes at the most, and five is unusual. ‘Free Bird’ was nine minutes. They said, ‘Nobody will ever play that song. You guys are crazy.’”

I suppose it was inevitable that comparisons would be drawn between the group and The Allman Brothers Band, also from the South but with much more of a jazz/jam band bent. I was among those who didn’t find much similarity between the two groups, other than the guitar-heavy arrangements. Van Zant’s one-dimensional singing wasn’t in the same league as Gregg Allman, and Skynyrd’s music had little of the blues roots that so dominated the Allmans’ stuff. Still, the fact that both bands lost key members to tragic accidents perpetuated the comparisons.

Indeed, Rossington cheated death more than once. He survived a nasty drunk-driving wreck in 1976, which inspired the ominous track “That Smell” the following year that presaged the plane crash: “Whiskey bottles, brand new cars, /Oak tree, you’re in my way, /There’s too much coke and too much smoke, /Look what’s going on inside you, /Ooooh, that smell, can’t you smell that smell? /Ooooh that smell, the smell of death surrounds you…” Collins, too, had his issues with alcohol and drugs, ending up paralyzed from a 1986 car accident he caused. 

The two guitarists teamed up in 1980 to form the Rossington-Collins Band, which lasted for two albums but never approached Skynyrd’s level of popularity. Rossington was back in the fold when new lineups of Skynyrd (including Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny on vocals) were assembled in the late 1980s to stage a tribute tour to their fallen bandmates. New releases were mostly ignored by radio and the buying public, but the group attracted a new generation of fans to their concerts, registering decent crowds in the 1990s and the years since.

In recent times, when Skynyrd courted controversy by continuing to use the Confederate flag in promotional materials (which they finally dropped in 2012), Rossington said the polarizing symbol was meant to show where they were from and not to offend. “I know that sounds naïve to say, but it’s how we felt,” he admitted. “If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd,” a 2018 documentary about the star-crossed band, is a worthwhile retelling of their history.

But as I said up front, the music is what matters. Once you get past the “played to death” tracks (which I included anyway for posterity), my Spotify playlist illustrates just how much Lynyrd Skynyrd had to offer and the legacy they left behind.