Ed. Note: Joe passed away December 14th, 2018, he was 81.
Joe Osborn. His face has never been on a record jacket or album cover. Odds are most have heard his name, but have no idea what his musical accomplishments have meant to contemporary pop music. If you listened to the radio or owned a record player in the ’60s, you heard Joe Osborn picking out bass lines for the Association, Ricky Nelson, Scott McKenzie, The Grass Roots, Mamas & Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Carpenters, Monkees, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, Gram Parsons, Helen Reddy, Johnny Rivers, Richard Harris, America, Fifth Dimension, and countless other bands and soundtracks. When teamed up with drummer Hal Blaine and keyboardist Larry Knechtel, the trio was known as part of the California Rock Explosion, a.k.a. “the best damn rhythm section on the planet.”
Born August 28, 1937, in Mound, Louisiana, Osborn started picking guitar at age 12. By age 20, he’d recorded a hit song with Dale Hawkins before spending a year on the Las Vegas strip with country singer Bob Luhman.
Since ’57, Osborn has racked up over 200 Top 40 hits, with 18 of them climbing all the way to the top slot on the pop charts. Not bad for a guy who started playing bass because Roy Buchanan knew more standards on guitar. We’ll let Osborn finish the story.
Vintage Guitar: What was the music scene like in Louisiana when you were a kid?
Joe Osborn: We only stayed in Louisiana until I was in the third grade. We moved to south Texas and stayed there until I was in high school. Then I moved back to Shreveport to live with my aunt and uncle. I had just started playing guitar and picked up a few jobs in Bossier City. The biggest thing in music was the television show “Louisiana Hay Ride,” and it had just gone off the air. I believe the reason everyone left because we never had a recording facility. The only place to cut a record was at the local radio station, KWKH. The first recording I worked on was done there with Dale Hawkins.
Any relation to Ronnie Hawkins?
Dale was Ronnie’s cousin. Dale wrote “Suzie Q” and “La Di Da Da,” which was the first hit song I played guitar on.
Are you a self-taught player?
Do you remember your first guitar?
Oh, yes! It was a Silvertone acoustic with an f-hole, it cost $15. Then I moved up to a Harmony, which was a little bit better. Then I bought a Gibson ES-175. When I got back to Shreveport, I traded it in for a Fender Telecaster. I played the Telecaster until I started playing bass.
How did you get from Shreveport to the West Coast?
Dale’s brother, Jerry, had a band and I was playing guitar with them. Roy Buchanan was the other guitar player in the group, and off to California we went. It was tough in the beginning. We were so broke we couldn’t afford to get our laundry clean. Then we got mixed up with Bob Luhman, a county singer who was well-established on the West Coast. Bob was on the “Town Hall Party” with Joe Maphis and Tex Ritter. He was putting a new band together to work in Vegas at the new Showboat Hotel. Roy and I auditioned for Bob and off to Vegas we went. Roy knew more of the guitar standards, so he was in as the guitarist. That’s when I started playing bass. Roy had borrowed an old electric Kay bass, but I didn’t like the way it played, so I went down to the local music store and bought a Fender Precision.
How long did that gig last?
We played there for almost a year, and then I headed back to Louisiana. At the same time, Ricky Nelson was putting a new band together for their television show. James Burton mentioned it to me, and the next thing I knew, I was back on the West Coast playing with Ricky.
What was that like?
We had a four-year run. It was great. Let me tell you a little story. When I first got there, they asked me to mail back all of the demos people had sent for consideration. There were hundreds of them. I was supposed to just mail them back. I started listening to a few, and that’s when I heard “Travelin’ Man.” I told Ricky we should keep this one and he agreed. We recorded it, and it turned out to be a number one hit for us. In ’64, Ricky decided he didn’t need a band anymore, and took all of us off retainer.
What did that mean for you?
I had already started working with Johnny Rivers. In ’62, we opened the Whiskey A-Go-Go. I’d known Johnny from Shreveport; he used to sit in with us a lot. When he got to Los Angeles, he looked me up and I recorded both live albums at the Whiskey with him. What started out as a two-week gig lasted almost two years.
After Johnny Rivers you were primarily working in the studios, weren’t you?
Yeah. I was working almost exclusively with Lou Adler at Western Recorders’ Studio 3. That’s when Hal [Blaine] and Larry Knechtel and I started working together. I think the first sessions we did were a couple of demos for P.F. Sloan and Steve Berry. The Turtles eventually released them. Back then we’d just do the music track, and later on the vocals were added. Half the time we didn’t know who the final artist was going to be.
Lou Adler liked our sound and used us on everything he produced. The engineer on all of that stuff was Bones Howe. Years before, when I was with Ricky Nelson, Bones had inquired about me because “Travelin’ Man” was the first song he had ever heard that had a noticeable bass line throughout the entire song.
From ’64 on, you three did all those sessions coming out of the West Hollywood Studios.
We were what was known as “first call” musicians. It wasn’t hard for the producers to figure out we played well together, so we did quite a bit, but we did a load of sessions individually, as well.
You and Hal were so tight as a rhythm section.
Yeah, we were. Hal was always a little on top of the beat, so I learned to watch his foot on the kick pedal. The way we were set up in the studio at that time, I sat right next to Hal with my amp behind me. I could watch him and play at the same time.
Was all that early stuff played off the top of your head?
Yes. In the beginning I couldn’t read a chord sheet; I would just get in the studio and learn the song. Often, I just got to play what I wanted to play. Other times, someone would try to explain what they wanted from me. One night, Papa John Philips hummed a bass line to me for 25 minutes. Note for note, he went through it. The guys in the booth were taking bets on if I would remember what John wanted. I got it down, note-for-note. Your memory – especially short-term – is really honed when you don’t read music.
What started you learning charts?
Tommy Tedesco told me that if I really wanted to make it as a studio player, learning to read was essential. So I did. I got some books and learned how to read charts and eventually how to read all the sections. Tommy also told me that once I did learn how to read, I would be twice as busy. He was right. I got a lot of *@#! sessions out of learning how to read.
When you play note-for-note, just how it is written.
How much leeway did producers and arrangers give you during other sessions?
It depended on the producer. Some of them said, “Play whatever you want to play.” Most of the arrangers would come in with a part already written, but if I was struggling with a certain line, they would always tell me to play what I wanted. One arranger told me the only reason he included a bass part was because he never knew who he was going to have in the studio.
So for the most part you would just tweak what they wrote and find your own groove?
Was the bass line in “Aquarius” off the top of your head?
For the most part. They had a rhythm chart and I just filled it up with what I thought sounded the best. We would usually take about three hours to cut a track, so there was plenty of time to work something like that out.
Just three hours?Sometime we’d get three or four tracks done in three hours. There was a time when a musician was expected to be able to do six songs in a three-hour session. Then there were times when you were working on one track well into the night and early next morning. It all depended on who was producing the session.
Getting back to “Aquarius.” There was a bass line written and the producer told be just make it busier.
You played your ass off on that track!
We never rehearsed that particular part; I just played it while the tape was rolling.
Did things in the studio ever get too crazy?
At times. Once this one artist brought in a pound of marijuana and just threw it on top of the piano and told us to enjoy it. We were serious studio musicians. You couldn’t be on drugs and work as hard as we did. That’s not to say our doctor didn’t prescribe legitimate medication to help us stay awake when we had to. The artists were usually the ones whacked out.
I will admit that one time a producer and artist got me so stoned I had to get up and take a walk around the block to get my head on straight. We started early that afternoon and didn’t finish until well after dawn the next day. Heck, If they were willing to pay me all that overtime…
But in all seriousness, most studio musicians shied away from those hard drugs.
Is it true you didn’t change strings for 15 years?
Maybe a little longer. I got my Jazz Bass in 1960, and I put new strings on it in 1962. It was a set of Labella strings. They never broke, so I never changed them. It wasn’t until they were filled with flat spots and started to unwind that I had to change them. I know it was long after I moved to Nashville.
You also play with a pick.
I always have. Remember, I went from guitar to bass overnight, and I just kept the pick. It eventually became part of my signature sound. Other bass players would always give me a hard time, but I never changed, and I’m not going to stop now.
Did it help having two pickups on the bass?
No, I never used the treble pickup. It had too much midrange for me.
Did you play directly into the recording console or mic off the amp?
Both. At first it was all from the amp, but after the direct box became available, I used both. Eventually, I ended up going direct for everything.
When and why did you leave L.A.?
1974. I just had to get out of there. I was just too busy for my liking and I needed a change.
Before we get into your time in Nashville, I have to ask: You were considered one of the best session bass players in the world. Did it ever bother you to see guys like Peter Tork or Danny Bonaduce playing air guitar to the licks you recorded for their songs?
No, not at all. We knew that it was going to happen. Hal had a good answer to a very similar question. He said people always tried to copy what we were doing, but by the time they learned it, we were already into something else.
There were bands that demanded our names never be mentioned in the liner notes. That didn’t bother us, either.
Who were you listening to back then?
Nobody. I didn’t have time. We were always so busy in the studio. Many times a producer would ask me to play a line like this guy or that guy. I’d just play like myself and he’d say, “That’s perfect!”
How did the British Invasion affect you?
It didn’t. We always had plenty of work, and we would take jobs as they came. We never skipped a session because we didn’t want to work with a certain artist; we took all comers. There were times we wished we could just do the sessions we wanted, but we never canceled a job.
What was scale back then?
believe I started at $45 [an hour], and just before I left, it was up to $130. The last few years I was in L.A., I was charging double scale. We thought that by charging double we would work less and make the same money, but producers were willing to pay us anything we wanted, so we started working more than we really cared to. Heck, there was a time when I worked two sessions a day, six days a week, and then a session on Sundays. It was really too much after a while.
So you packed up the family and moved to Nashville.
We bought a farm about 50 miles north of Nashville and I commuted into the city for 14 years.
Was there a big difference between the studios in L.A. and Nashville?
Studios are all the same. I worked every bit as much, if not more, in Nashville. I knew some people there, so it was easy for me to get in. I did session five, six, and sometimes seven days a week. Toward the end it slowed down.
That’s when you moved back to Louisiana?
I could live anywhere, but my wife and I are both from there, so we decided to make it home again.
Let’s talk a little about your Jazz Bass.
It is the only instrument I’ve played since 1960. I got it when I was playing with Ricky Nelson. We were about to go on tour and Fender was just about to introduce this new model. They sent one, and when I opened the case I didn’t know what to think. It was a lot different than my P-Bass. As soon as I picked it up, I could feel the neck was going to be much easier to finger, being it is so much thinner than the one I was used to. Like I said, it was the only bass I used for all those studio years.
When did you start having artists sign the back of it?
When I was in Nashville. If I played on a song that went to number one, I’d have the artist sign their name on the back and then I would shellac over it.
Do you know how many songs you played on that made the Top 40?
Recently, my son started a discography of my work, and there are about 200 pop Top 40, 18 number ones on the pop charts, and at least 53 number ones on the country charts.
Did you ever wish you would have played with just one band and made all the big money up front?
No, I never did like to travel. Bob Dylan made me a great offer, and Elvis also wanted me to go on the road with him, but I was happy with what I was doing. Heck, neither could pay me what I was making at the time.
What are you doing now?
Hal and I just finished a documentary about our time in the studios, and I’m working with Dan Lakin helping Lakland Basses design a new bass.
How’d that come about?
I have been looking to replace my old Jazz for some years now. Fender came out with a reissue of their 1960 version, and it isn’t even close to what I have. The feel is way off, and the sound is too muddy.
A few years ago, I was in Japan working with Richard Carpenter, and the guys from Yamaha sent a bass for me to try. I played it in the studio, and Richard was the first to say that didn’t sound anything like my Jazz. I started looking around and soon found out old Fenders like mine are selling for close to $8,500, and half of them are just as beat up. Who wants to haul a $8,500 bass around? Finally, I thought that I was going to have to find some guitarmaker and have him build an exact copy.
Six months ago, Dan Lakin called to ask if I wanted to try one of his basses. We went back and forth for awhile about what I was looking for, then I flew in, and they took all sorts of measurements and did all kinds of sound tests on my old bass. One thing led to another, and before too long, Dan and his guys came up with a design that is absolutely perfect. It plays 100 percent like my old Jazz and sounds as close to my old one as the human ear can tell. But the real kicker is the workmanship. I don’t know of another instrument made this well. After all the years of frustration, this one is everything I could ask for.
Dan and I came to an agreement to make it Lakland’s “Joe Osborn” signature model. Wait ’til you play one! They have it down to the exact detail. There will also be an active electric model offered. Greg Rzab, Buddy Guy’s bass player, is road-testing it.
So, are you going to retire your old bass?
I should. With all those names on the back, it should go into some sort of museum.
Have you ever thought about putting together a method book with some of your best chops?
The idea has surfaced recently. It’ll be a huge undertaking to work out all those tablatures. It is something I will definitely be working on in the near future.
The Osborn Top 40
With a recording career that spanned three decades, one can assume there might be a few hit songs along the way. In Joe Osborn’s case, the number is around 200. This list contains songs that appeared on the pop charts. According to Joe, it’s a little incomplete due to the fact that he can’t remember every session. In his days in Nashville, Osborn played on53 certifiable number one songs on the country charts.
Arranged by year, artist, title and Chart Position
1961, Rick Nelson, Travelin’ Man, 1
1965, Gary Lewis/Playboys, This Diamond Ring, 1
1965, Barry McGre, Eve of Destruction, 1
1966, Mamas and Papas, Monday Monday, 1
1966, Johnny Rivers, Poor Side of Town, 1
1967, Association, Windy, 1
1969, Fifth Dimension, Wedding Bell Blues, 1
1969, Tommy Roe, Dizzy, 1
1970, Carpenters, Close To You, 1
1970, Neil Diamond, Cracklin’ Rose, 1
1970, Partridge Family, I Think I Love You, 1
1970, Simon and Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1
1972, Helen Reddy, I Am Woman, 1
1973, Carpenters, Top of the World, 1
1973, Helen Reddy, Delta Dawn, 1
1974, Carpenters, Please, Mr. Postman, 1
1964, Johnny Rivers, Memphis, 2
1965, Gary Lewis/Playboys, Count Me In, 2
1965, Gary Lewis/Playboys, Save Your Heart For Me, 2
1967, Mamas and Papas, Dedicated To the One I Love, 2
1968, Association, Never My Love, 2
1968, Richard Harris, MacArthur Park, 2
1970, Carpenters, Superstar, 2
1970, Carpenters, We’ve Only Just Begun, 2
1970, Fifth Dimension, One Less Bell to Answer, 2
1971, Carpenters, Rainy Days and Mondays, 2
1972, Carpenters, Hurting Each Other, 2
1973, Carpenters, Yesterday Once More, 2
1976, England Dan & John Ford Coley, I’d Really Love to See You, 2
1966 , Johnny Rivers, Secret Agent Man, 3
1967 , JohnnyRivers, Baby, I Need Your Lovin’, 3
1968 , Fifth Dimension, Stone Soul Picnic, 3
1968 , Monkees, Valleri, 3
1969 , Bobby Sherman, Little Women, 3
1971 , Carpenters, For All We Know, 3
1973 , Carpenters, Sing, 3
1973 , Helen Reddy, Leave Me Alone, 3
1965 , Gary Lewis/Playboys, Everybody Loves a Clown, 4
1966 , Mamas & Papas, California Dreamin’, 4
1967 , Scott Mackenzie, San Francisco, 4
1974 , America, Tin Man, 4
1975 , Carpenters, Only Yesterday, 4
1962 , Rick Nelson, Teenage Idol, 5
1962 , Rick Nelson, YoungWorld, 5
1966 , Mamas & Papas, Words of Love, 5
1967 , Mamas & Papas, CreequeAlley, 5
1968 , Grass Roots, Midnight Confession, 5
1968 , Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Just Dropped In, 5
1970 , Bobby Sherman, Julie, Do You Love Me?, 5
1974, Neil Diamond, Longfellow Serenade, 5
1975, America, Lonely People, 5
1977, KennyRogers, Lucille, 5
1962, Rick Nelson, It’s Up to You, 6
1964, Rick Nelson, ForYou, 6
1966, Mamas & Papas, I Saw Her Again, 6
1966, Tommy Roe, Hurray for Hazel, 6
1969, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Ruby, 6
1969 , Neil Diamond, Holly Holy, 6
1970 , Barbra Streisand, Stoney End, 6
1972 , Johnny Rivers, Rockin’ Pneumonia, 6
1971 , Partridge Family, Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted?, 6
1965 , Johnny Rivers, Seventh Son, 7
1967 , Fifth Dimension, Up, Up, and Away, 7
1969 , Simon & Garfunkel, The Boxer, 7
1971 , Tommy Roe, Stagger Lee, 7
1972 , Carpenters, Goodbye to Love, 7
1966 , Gary Lewis/Playboys, Green Grass, 8
1968 , Boyce & Hart, I Wonder What She’s Doin’, 8
1969 , Tommy Roe, Jam Up, Jelly Tight, 8
1972 , America, Ventura Highway, 8
1972 , Fifth Dimension, Didn’t Get to Sleep at All, 8
1975, Helen Reddy, No Way to Treat a Lady, 8
1961, Rick Nelson, Hello, Mary Lou, 9
1964, Johnny Rivers , Mountain of Love, 9
1967, Spanky & Our Gang, Sunday Will Never Be the Same, 9
1969, Bobby Sherman, La La La, 9
1970, Bobby Sherman, Easy Come, Easy Go, 9
1971, Grass Roots, Sooner or Later, 9
1971, Partridge Family, I’ll Meet Ya Halfway, 9
1973, Art Garfunkel, All I Know, 9
1973, B.W. Stevenson, My Maria, 9
1974, Helen Reddy, You and Me Against the World , 9
1975, Austin Roberts, Rocky, 9
1978, England Dan & John Ford Coley , We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again , 9
1982, Sylvia, Nobody, 9
1967, Johnny Rivers, Tracks of My Tears, 10
1968, Association, EverythingThat TouchesYou, 10
1970, Mark Lindsay, Arizona, 10
1972, Fifth Dimension, If I Could ReachYou, 10
1976, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Nights Are Forever, 10
1961, Rick Nelson, A Wonder Like You, 11
1970, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Somethin’s Burnin’, 11
1974, Carpenters, I Won’t Last a Day, 11
1963, Rick Nelson, Fools Rush In, 12
1964, Johnny Rivers, Maybelle, 12
1968, Cass Elliott, Dream a Little Dream, 12
1971, FifthDimension, Never My Love, 12
1972, Carpenters, It’s Going to Take Some Time, 12
1972, Austin Roberts, Something’s Wrong With Me, 12
1973, Helen Reddy, Peaceful, 12
1976, Carpenters, There’s a Kind of Hush, 12
1966, Gary Lewis/Playboys, My Heart Symphony, 13
1968, Fifth Dimension, Sweet Blindness, 13
1971, Helen Reddy, I Don’t Know How to Love Him , 13
1972, Partridge Family, I Woke Up in Love, 13
1967, Johnny Rivers, Summer Rain, 14
1966, Gary Lewis/Playboys, Paint Me a Picture, 15
1969, Grass Roots, I’d Wait a Million Years, 15
1971, Grass Roots, Temptation Eyes, 15
1974, Helen Reddy, Keep On Singing, 15
1961, Rick Nelson, EverLovin’, 16
1967, Fifth Dimension, Go Where You Wanna Go, l 6
1971, Grass Roots, Two Divided By Love, 16
1971, Bobby Sherman, Cry Like a Baby, 16
1981, Carpenters, Touch Me When We’re Dancin’, 16
1968, Spanky & Our Gang, Like to Get to Know You, 17
1970, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Tell It to Brother, 17
1975, Carpenters, Solitaire, 17
1976, Art Garfunkel, I Only Have Eyes For You, 18
1966, Johnny Rivers, Muddy Water, 19
1968, Gary Lewis/Playboys, Sealed With a Kiss, 19
1969, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, But You Know I Love You, 19
1970, Glen Campbell, Honey Come Back, 19
1971, Fifth Dimension, Love Lines, Angels & Rhymes, 19
1976, Helen Reddy, Somewhere in the Night, 19
1982, Michael Murphy, What’s Forever For, 19
1965, Johnny Rivers, Midnight Special, 20
1967, Mamas & Papas, TwelveThirty, 20
1969, Fifth Dimension, Workin’ On a Groovy Thing, 20
1970, Michael Parks, Long Lonesome Highway, 20
1972, Partridge Family, It’s One of Those Nights, 20
1977, Olivia Newton John, Sam, 20
1967, GaryLewis/Playboys , Where Will Words Come From , 21
1970, Fifth Dimension, Blowing Away, 21
1977, EnglandDan & John Ford Coley, It’s Sad to Belong, 21
1975, Helen Reddy, Emotion, 22
1967, Grass Roots, Things I Should Have Said, 23
1967, Tommy Roe, It’s Now Winter’s Day, 23
1969, Glen Campbell, Try a Little Kindness, 23
1977, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Gone Too Far, 23
1966, Mamas & Papas, Look Through My Window, 24
1967, Scott Mackenzie, Like an Old-Time Movie, 24
1969, Grass Roots, HeavenKnows, 24
1970, Fifth Dimension, Puppet Man, 24
1970, Bobby Sherman, Hey, Mr. Sun!, 24
1963, Rick Nelson, String Along, 25
1969, Fifth Dimension, California Soul, 25
1970, Mark Lindsay, Silver Bird, 25
1976, Carpenters, I Need to Be In Love, 26
1964, Rick Nelson, The Very Thought of You, 26
1965, Johnny Rivers, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, 26
1967, Glen Campbell, By the Time I Get to Phoenix , 26
1967, Mamas & Papas, Glad to Be Unhappy , 26
1969, Glen Campbell, Where’s the Playground, Suzie , 26
1970, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Reuben James, 26
1968, Boyce & Hart, Alice Long, 27
1970, Glen Campbell, All I Have to Do is Dream, 27
1970, Fifth Dimension, Save the Country, 27
1966, Grass Roots, Where Were You When I Needed You, 28
1969, Grass Roots, Bella Linda, 28
1972, Partridge Family, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, 28
1968, Fifth Dimension, Carpet Man, 29
1969, Tommy Roe, Heather Honey, 29
1971, Bobby Sherman, The Drum, 29
1968, Spanky & Our Gang, Sunday Morning, 30
1969, Cass Elliott, It’s Getting Better, 30
1967, Spanky & Our Gang, Make Every Minute Count, 31
1969, Grass Roots, The River Is Wide, 31
1971, Glen Campbell, Dream Baby, 31
1974, Albert Hammond, I’m a Train, 31
1970, John Philips, Mississippi, 32
1973, Fifth Dimension, LivingTogether, 32
1977, Carpenters, Calling Occupants, 32
1966, Johnny Rivers, Under Your Spell Again, 33
1970, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Heed the Call, 33
1976, Olivia Newton John, Don’t Stop Believin’, 33
1967, Fifth Dimension, Paper Cup, 34
1972, Grass Roots, Glory Bound, 34
1973, Neil Diamond, Be, 34
1974, Art Garfunkel, Second Avenue, 34
1969, Glen Campbell, TrueGrit, 35
1970, Grass Roots, Baby, Hold On!, 35
1973, America, Don’t Cross River, 35
1975, Helen Reddy, Bluebird, 35
1977, Carpenters, All You Can Get From Love, 35
1968, Glen Campbell, I Want to Live, 36
1969, Glen Campbell, Let It Be Me, 36
1969, Cass Elliott, Make Your Own Kind of Music, 36
1972, Fifth Dimension, Together Let’s Find Love, 37
1974, Art Garfunkel, I Shall Sing, 38
1975, Johnny Rivers, Blue Suede Shoes, 38
1967, Boyce & Hart, Out and About, 39
1968, Association, Time For Lovin’, 39
1968, Glen Campbell, Gentle On My Mind, 39
1972, Grass Roots, TheRunaway, 39
1973, Partridge Family, Look Through the Eyes of Love, 39
1966, The Turtles, You, Baby, 40
All Photos: Ed Hirsch.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.