Renowned studio guitarist Tim May played his first film-score session in 1974, for John Schlesinger’s Day of the Locust. Now a legitimate first-call session player, May has contributed to thousands of film scores, TV soundtracks, and record dates. Still, he’s probably best known for his scalding version of “Johnny B. Goode” that was so nicely aped by Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future.
May’s studio career is documented by the Film Musicians Secondary Fund, a statement distributed to industry pros every July. It’s a session player’s career in a nutshell, comprehensive for May considering his 55 pages of content (in small print).
Other indicators of his industry-wide respect include awards and citations presented by fellow session musicians. May was honored with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Most Valuable Player Award three years in a row, a citation conferred only by peers in the studio and session community – musicians, producers, conductors, composers, and arrangers. After winning three years in a row, he was honored with the coveted MVP Emeritus status.
May fondly recalls the work for Back To the Future.
“After the first session, I was called back the next day because they wanted to add some things,” he said. “Also, there was a young player interested in the business who asked if he could come along to see what a film-recording date was like. But, what was funny is I didn’t play at all on the second day. The director just wanted me to knock over my amp, generate feedback, create lots of spring reverb noise and cacophony. I was thinking this poor kid is really going to get the wrong idea about studio work. But that’s all part of it. You have to be flexible and creative.”
The list of those who’ve hired May to flex his chops is long and illustrious, and includes Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, the Pointer Sisters, Ray Charles, John Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Debbie Harry, David Foster, Whitney Houston, George Benson, Quincy Jones, Cher, Lionel Richie, and Linda Ronstadt.
May has many session stories beyond the Back to the Future vignette. Some involve learning the ropes, like his first encounter with Sinatra.
“I did a couple of his records early on, and of course I knew of him, but didn’t know much about his reputation,” May said. “So, I was tuning up at Warner Brothers, and he and his entourage walked by the stage. I was young and naïve, but I’ve always been a friendly guy, so I say, ‘Hey, Frank, just like you to know that I’m a big fan and honored to be here.’ He gives me this look, like ‘Who the hell is this kid?’ Then I realized that everybody with him knew him a lot better than I did and they were like, ‘Mr. Sinatra’ this and ‘Mr. Sinatra’ that, and here I am going, ‘Hey, Frank,’ (laughs). Well, I got the vibe real quick.
“One of the first sessions I played on was for Percy Faith with Howard Roberts and Dennis Budimir. It wasn’t for a hit record, but it was still exciting.”
Though the exact tune escapes him, the first time he heard his playing on pop radio was a Donna Summer or Lionel Ritchie record.
“Studio work suits me well, much better than doing a showbiz thing,” he adds. “Still, you have to be thick-skinned. You might get feedback anywhere from nothing to a couple of chord changes. You take an approach and if it doesn’t work for someone you can’t get upset. I don’t get offended if they want something changed. I just provide an alternative, and that makes people feel good. From the few times I’ve run sessions, I know you don’t need anybody to say something sucks. There are so many great players and so many different approaches. And I like darn near everything. I remember reading as a teenager that Charlie Parker would go hear some country band and almost always found something good because he wanted to experience different forms of music. It’s all music to me, especially if a guitar is involved. You can take some hotdog player and have him play another style, and he might not be so good. You just can’t be arrogant.
“I’ve survived and can see why others haven’t. Some get mad or opinionated when things aren’t exactly right, but I’m easy-going, and that has served me well. I’ll put up with just about anything that isn’t insulting, and have always done my best to turn in a good job, musically. I try to make people feel comfortable. Composers and leaders have enough pressure without someone being difficult.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.