Mike Anthony

Jazz Big-Leaguer
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Anthony with a Gibson L-5 Wes Montgomery model.

Howard Roberts and Tommy Tedesco were his mentors; both recognized his extraordinary talent and relentless work ethic.

When L.A. session guitarist Mike Anthony elected to leave the studio life after many years, Tommy Tedesco threw him an unforgettable gala retirement party that was populated by so many guitar greats it was chronicled by a feature article in Guitar Player magazine. Virtually every name guitarist from the L.A studio and jazz scene attended the send-off; the list included old-guard players like Al Hendrickson, Bob Bain, George M. Smith, Bill Pitman, Herb Ellis, Allan Reuss, Tiny Timbrell, Tony Rizzi, Ron Eschete, Dennis Budimir, George Van Eps, and of course Tedesco, while the young lions were represented by Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Mitch Holder, Grant Geissman, Tim May, Jay Graydon, and Barry Zweig.

“I was a first-Call guy and very fortunate, but it’s a freelance business and I worked my butt off to get there”

A protegé of the great Howard Roberts, Anthony spent decades as a first-call session player and second-generation member of the famed Wrecking Crew, the studio stalwarts who played on countless hit records and TV/radio commercials. For instance, that’s Anthony playing the gorgeous arpeggios on Diana Ross’ hit, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?” the theme from Mahogany. In addition to TV credits for “The Bob Newhart Show,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Dallas,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Flintstones,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Happy Days,” and many more, a few of his film credits include Moonraker, Funny Lady, Mahogany, Day of the Locusts, The Fox and the Hound, The Eiger Sanction, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Lady Sings The Blues, The Last Detail, and others. During his studio years, Anthony was also in-demand from Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, The Fifth Dimension, Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, J.J. Johnson, and Groove Holmes. And few musicians can cite career highlights that include working with Miles Davis and Luciano Pavarotti.

Today, in addition to concerts that honor other jazz-guitar greats, Anthony teaches jazz guitar at the University of New Mexico and gigs with his acclaimed First Take Trio. In June of 2014, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award and another for Best Instrumental Performance from the New Mexico Music Awards.

1) This ’55 Guild X-500 was Anthony’s first professional guitar. 2) Anthony bought this ’47 Gibson L-5 from John Pisano, who used it on Duets with Joe Pass. 3) This late-model L-5 Wes Montgomery L-5 was one of the last made by Gibson’s Custom Shop.

Early Years

In 1955, Anthony’s family settled in California. He attended Van Nuys High School where at 14 he discovered three players – Les Paul, Andres Segovia, and Bo Diddley – who inspired him to consider a career playing guitar. His pursuit was enhanced with lessons from the great Jimmy Wyble.

“In 1959, I started college at age 17,” he said. “I still dug Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but through a friend I learned about Howard Roberts, who was playing the cool guitar parts on the TV series ‘The Deputy.’ For the soundtrack, producer Jack Marshall gave Howard free reign to play whatever struck him. By then, I’d decided to study with a studio player; becoming one was my goal, and I contacted Vince Terry at CBS. He told me about Howard, who was so big at the time I thought he’d never be available. I was so lucky to start with him when I was 19.”

Fire in the Studio

“I’d been making my way teaching nearly 60 students a week at Lively Arts Music,” Anthony continued. “One day, I received a call from Howard, who said, ‘Mike, come over. I want to give you an Uncle Howie talk.’ I was 25 at the time, and he asked if my goals were still the same. I said, I want to be a great jazz guitarist and studio musician.

“He said, ‘Number one, you’re ready because you have the talent and qualities for both, but you’re teaching all day. To make the transition, you’re going to have to take a risk because you’ll need to be available. At first, when you get called it’s because they can’t get the regular guys. It’ll be last-minute and you’ll have to be ready because if you’re not, those calls won’t keep coming.’

“I discussed it with my wife, and quit giving lessons. Then, Howard started taking me to sessions. The most memorable was at Capitol Records, when I got to fill in for Bill Pitman and play on Howard’s session. Pete Jolly was on organ, Carol Kaye on bass, Earl Palmer on drums, Larry Bunker on percussion, and Bill on rhythm guitar. I was in the booth and so excited to be there and witness what was going on.”

“From the booth, I saw Billy Pitman approach Howard and they were having a serious conversation. Howard turned and waved me into the studio. He said, ‘Mike, have you got your guitar?’ I don’t know what inspired me to bring it that day, but I had it and my amp in the car. Bill had an emergency; his son was being rushed to the hospital with appendicitis. I ran from my car with my Guild X-500 and a little Fender amp, and my hands were shaking – you can imagine my nerves.

“The first thing they put in front of me was a bass part! I had to double Carol Kaye’s line. The tune was ‘Comin’ Home, Baby,’ which I had to read in bass clef. I got through it with Howard’s help. I also got to play on ‘Danke Schoen.’”

4) 1942 Gibson L-7. 5) Anthony says this ’91 Gibson E S-775 “…has that fat, dark traditional jazz sound.” 6) This ’66 Gibson Johnny Smith has no pickups.

H.R. and Tommy T.

“Another night I was at Howard’s house, playing through the changes of songs he was going to record. His phone rang and I heard him say, ‘No, I have a session that night, but I’ve got a guy here who’s a great player and the new busy guy in town.’

“He totally lied, because I wasn’t doing anything. He asked me, ‘Are you available tomorrow morning?’ That endorsed what he’d told me about being available. Then, he put me on the phone and the guy just wanted me to play jazz chords. It was a dogfood jingle, but I heard it on and off for seven years as a TV and radio spot.

“Tommy Tedesco and Howard respected each other so much, and Howard would sometimes recommend players to Tommy. Once, I had a jingle session where I knew I was going to meet Tommy for the first time. During a break, I went to tell him how much I admired him and he said, ‘Hey, Howard told me about you. You play really great and I’m going to recommend you for some things; I have [Fifty Guitars with Tommy Garrett] coming up. He called me for that, and then I got called for all of them after.”

War Stories

“I once got a call to fill in for Ron Benson, who’d picked up a recording date and asked me to sub for him at Magic Mountain with pianist Roger Williams. I was working with Quincy Jones at the Record Plant that day, but had the evening free. So, when Ron stopped by to deliver the 30 guitar parts, he said, ‘Mike, guard these with your life because there’s no score, just these parts.’ The day comes, and I had a 9 o’clock call at the Record Plant, and had my tux and all my stuff in the car. I drove down Woodman Avenue to the freeway and in my rearview mirror saw all these papers flying all over the street. My first thought was, ‘Some poor slob has lost some important papers.’ Then it hit me – I’d left the charts on the top of my car! I saw one of the charts hit a Mack truck in the windshield, like a scene in a movie, and cars are running over these arrangements. So I got out and risked my life in traffic, but managed to get all 30. I was about 10 minutes late for the session, and they’d called my wife because they were worried about me. I told them what happened and how I was crawling under cars. I was filthy and sweaty at eight in the morning and the charts were covered with tire tracks and grease (laughs). 

“That night, I played the gig and didn’t mention it to Ron – I just left the book on the stand. When he showed up the next night, he found it, then called me after to find out how the gig went. For a long time, he didn’t say anything about the charts, and when he finally brought himself to ask, we had a great laugh about it… thank goodness.

“Once, I was working a session for composer and conductor Lalo Schifrin on the show ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ I altered a note on the chart I thought was incorrect. Lalo heard it and chewed me out in front of everybody. He said, ‘Don’t you dare change my composition!’ I got the message. Two weeks later I was working for Marvin Hamlisch, and there’s another note I think is wrong. So, I stop the session to ask. Marvin hit the ceiling and said, ‘Damn… You know your harmony. Stop wasting my time and change the damn thing!’ Sometimes, you just can’t win.

“I also remember a session for Randy Sparks with the folk group the Christy Minstrels. I was playing nylon-string when Randy stopped us and said, ‘Mike, your guitar is squeaking!’ I didn’t know what to say except, ‘Randy, have you ever heard of Segovia?’ He said, ‘Of course.’ I said, ‘Segovia squeaks.’ Randy said, ‘I know Mike, that’s why I hired you!’”

7) ’75 Howard Roberts Custom 8) This 2010 Gibson Pat Martino has an ebony fretboard. 9) Anthony used this ’64 Gibson B-25-12 on cues for the film Lady Sings the Blues. 10) Anthony used this ’65 Ovation DeLuxe for “The Carol Burnett Show” sessions.

“Barney Miller” Theme

“I’m a James Taylor fan and had been listening to his album, Walking Man. I loved a cut called ‘Rock and Roll is Music.’ There’s a musical hook – a vamp over which James is singing, ‘Rock and roll is music…’ I learned it because I liked it so much.

“While doing ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ we’d play during the breaks between scenes. Sometimes, the conductor would say, ‘Mike, start something funky,’ and I’d use that lick. Bassist Chuck Berghofer said, ‘Show me that so I can double it with you.’ We’d go in on Thursday nights for rehearsal, then pre-record and tape all day Friday. One night, Chuck walked in looking disheveled. I asked what was going on and he said, ‘I just came from a pilot called ‘Barney Miller.’ They had a bass part, but the producer didn’t like it and asked me to create something… All I could think of was that damn riff you showed me.’ And the rest is history (laughs). Chuck was upset because he was afraid of a lawsuit. Fortunately, it never happened.”

Miles Davis

“The great bassist Ray Brown called me for the Monterey Jazz Festival. He’d hired the band and I was honored because I was in my 20s and was there with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones on drums with the Gil Evans Orchestra featuring Miles Davis. We played pieces from Sketches of Spain and I used my X-500. After the concert, we played for a week at Shelly’s Manne-Hole and the Costa Mesa Jazz Festival, with Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto.

“Gil Evans was also like a mentor; he’d tell me what he wanted but left me a lot of room. This wasn’t long after the Uncle Howie talk and I’d had a tremendous year. Fortunately, Howard saw my potential. Now that I’m older and around younger guys, they can give me a guitar lesson any time. And anything that I have that anyone wants, I’m happy to share. Bob Bain is like that, like Howard and Joe Pass. I could ask them anything.”

Luciano Pavarotti

“For this concert, I recall there was a lot of music but I only had about six charts. There was nothing too complicated – a couple lines here and there, but mostly chords. So I mostly got to jump in and play fills with my ’42 L-7. I’d create lines around the orchestra and Pavarotti evidently liked them. I was sitting in back and he’d often sing his piece then walk back and put his hand on my shoulder. I’m not sure if it was because he liked what I was doing or because we were a mile up and he needed oxygen (laughs). I was in a rented tux with tails and it crossed my mind to never return it because it had been touched by the great Pavarotti.”

 Les Paul

“After so many years, I’d never met Les, who was one of my first heroes and major influences. I’d steal his licks and study his stuff. One day, I was talking to Howard Alden and mentioned that I’d never met Les. I knew that Howard would sometimes sub for Les’ rhythm player, Lou Pallo. Howard said, ‘Mike, you’ve got to make the pilgrimage.’ So in the summer of 2007 I made reservations for the Iridium Club in New York City. In fact, weeks in advance I started calling so many times the guy answering said, ‘Let me guess, this is Mike Anthony.’ Well, that guy advised us to show up two hours early. So, Kathie and I were second in line and got a table right by the stage. I was already happy, but Les’ bassist, Nicki Parrott, asked if I was Mike Anthony and invited me backstage after the show. She said, ‘Howard Alden told us all about you.’ Les and I talked for a long time and I was in heaven. He said, ‘I hear you’re a studio guitarist in L.A. Do you know Bob Bain?’ I practically laughed out loud because I’m such close friends with Bob.”

“We had so many mutual friends – Howard Roberts, Pat Martino, Vic Juris, and so on. Then he said, ‘Are you pretty good?’ I said ‘Well, I think I am.’ He asked if I was going to stay for the second show, so his assistant gave me a guitar that had rubber bands for strings and nothing like what I play but that was okay. We played ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ I started out with a vamp and got everyone going. Get a groove going on and you’re in. And that was a night I’ll never forget.”

11) This 2001 Eastman Uptown has a 17″ lower bout. 12) ’74 Martin 000-28. 13) 1990 Takamine Hirade. 14) For Anthony’s first studio lesson with Tommy Tedesco, he showed up with this Fender plectrum banjo tuned DGBD (low to high). “Tommy laughed at me and suggested I tune it like a guitar. He said, ‘All they want is the sound.’”

Diana Sings the Blues

Anthony worked the Diana Ross film Lady Sings the Blues.

“That was with Michel Legrand at Paramount, and later, I got a call for a session for Ross’ film, Mahogany. It was for the song, ‘Do You Know Where You’re Going To?’ I was told by the session bassist, Rheiny Press, that I was following a succession of major studio guitarists including Tommy Tedesco and Larry Carlton and 12 or 15 other guys, and to not feel bad if I got sent home. But I did what I did and the producer, Michael Masser, really liked it.

“My part wasn’t written out. All I had were chord charts and I was to play what I thought fit. I used my Ovation steel-string to ad lib the fills. The song was nominated for an Academy Award and hit #1 on the Billboard charts.”

This late-’60s ES-345 was modifed by luthier John Carruthers to remove the stereo wiring and was used on “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Flintstones,” and almost all of Anthony’s movie sessions.

Philosophy and Accolades

One of Anthony’s most-cherished memories is of Joe Pass inviting him to jam. Any jazz guitarist knows that’s a tribute in itself.

“Joe and I were at MGM playing for a film,” he said. “Toward the end, Joe invited me to his place in Woodland Hills, and we spent the rest of the afternoon jamming. It basically amounted to him giving me a free lesson. We talked a lot about picking technique, because everything Joe played sounded so crisp. And believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time evaluating picking philosophies.

“I once asked Howard (Roberts) which way I should play something, and he said, ‘Mike, you’ve got 10 fingers, six strings, and a pick. Leave no stone unturned.’ That was immensely powerful to me and I always pass that philosophy on to students.

“I was a first-call guy and very fortunate, but it’s a freelance business and I worked my butt off to get there. In the big city, though, a lot of guys get to a very high level, so luck is as important as skill.”

Session great Tim May once said of Anthony, “Every time I see Mike, he’s on to something new, musically. He just keeps progressing and creating interesting things. And he somehow maintains the enthusiasm we had when we were teenagers. He’s like Bob Bain in that way. Bob is always eager to learn something new or pass along what he knows.”

Perhaps the great Howard Roberts, at one of his seminars, said it best many years ago; “Mike Anthony is always in there, scratching. He’s one of the busiest and best guitar players in the business.”

That’s an endorsement any pro guitar player would envy.


This article originally appeared in VG March 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.