Legendary Session Man Jim Horn On Working With John Denver And Getting Inside The “Genius” Of Brian Wilson
At 72 years of age, there’s not much that Jim Horn hasn’t done. While his name might not be immediately familiar, you’ve definitely heard a lot of his work over the years. The session vet got his start playing sax and flute as a key member of Duane Eddy’s band in the late ‘50s (in fact, Eddy once turned down an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, because they didn’t allow saxophones – which they called the “instrument of the devil”).
His work with Eddy was merely the starting point of his professional career. From there, he would become one of the most in-demand session players (and a member of the well-known “Wrecking Crew”) during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. He got the chance to work with all four Beatles. What else needs to be said?
Okay fine, here’s more: You’ll find his work on songs like “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows by the Beach Boys, “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” by the Righteous Brothers, music for the movie Shaft, “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra and the list goes on and on and on.
In the midst of all of that, Horn also spent a number of years playing and recording with John Denver, beginning in 1978, an association that would continue until Denver’s death in the late ‘90s.
Earlier this year, Horn took part in John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert, the new officially sanctioned tribute to the legacy of Denver and his music. We spoke with Jim about the tour and he shared his memories about playing with John and also some great stories from his legendary career.
MW: How did you get involved in this tour? It’s an interesting kind of gig for you.
JH: I worked with John for a good 15 + years. I was with him the longest of anyone in the band. So when John died they decided to have “John Denver Week” up in Aspen 15 years ago. So we’d all go up there in October on the anniversary of his death and perform some shows. We’ve done that for 15 years, just keeping his music alive. The fans were still out there, flying over from all these different countries just to hear John’s music again. This is the first time that they wanted to try having real footage of him up on a large screen with some of his band members playing along with him, kind of like the Elvis show I guess.
This is primarily just for the fans that would still like to see John perform again. Not in a crude or morbid way but more in a celebratory way, hearing him sing and watching him play and then we’ll be playing onstage along with him, like we did [back in the day]. There are a couple of guys in the band that weren’t with John, but [musical director] Jim Salestrom had met him and knew him. There are three of us that actually worked with John, Allen Deremo, Chris Nole and me, so we do have some original band members on stage.
MW: What was your preparation like getting ready for the shows? Was there a good amount you were able to retain from having previously played with John?
JH: Yeah, and when they play this old footage, it’s interesting to see him up there. I’m mainly playing the same thing I played with him all those years. That part of it comes fairly easy. The hardest part is playing along to the video because it’s like playing with the record, you know? You have to keep time and everything and it’s a little harder. But it’s coming together really nicely. I normally play concerts where everything’s live and stuff, and the singers are there. This is a different presentation and so you have to prepare yourself for that and really listen.
They’ve put a lot of work in with the videos and putting all that together for us too and the interviews with people. And I’m going to tell a couple of stories about John and me and stuff. I flew with him in his biplane and that’s a pretty good story. I was the only one that went up there with him. We had a great time one morning, flying around over his farms in Kansas City. He let me fly and take the stick. It’s a good story and we’re just going to mix in stuff like that. Hopefully everybody comes out to see it. If this whole tour flies we’ll probably catch all the rest of the cities and states and go to Europe, Australia and Japan. It’s a start to see how it’s going to work.
MW: I spoke with Nate [tour drummer Nate Barnes] about this show, he was saying that one of the challenging things has been the fact that there’s no metronome, no click track. The impression he got when talking to guys like you was that John kept things loose on stage as it was, so this really isn’t too different in comparison to what it would have been like playing with him on stage. It keeps you on your toes just as you would have been on stage back in the day.
JH: That’s true. When I first joined up with John he sat me down and said “I want you to just play anything you hear on my songs, where there’s holes or a place you can fill in. If I’m singing about water or the birds or the wind or sky, whatever makes you want to emulate those sounds feel free and just take your freedom and surprise me” and I said, “OK.” So I get up there the first night and we’re at Madison Square Garden and that was a very big night for us — It was packed.
It was the first time I played live with him. I heard him singing about calypso, so I tried to get some ocean or bird sounds, a seagull or whatever — arpeggios and stuff. Arpeggios are sounds like the wind; you go up and down on your notes on the flute and [there are] flutters and things. He’d turn around and smile at me, put his thumbs up and wink at me. So I knew I was doing the right thing. I had my freedom every night. I didn’t have to play the same thing every night, so it was a very enjoyable job. I enjoyed playing with John every night.
MW: Did you first work with John back in your Wrecking Crew days? How did you connect with him?
JH: I met him at RCA. I was working on a Jose Feliciano record next door and I ran into John. Somebody introduced me to him; I think the producer Milt Okun, and he said, “This is Jim Horn, flute player, sax player.” He said. “Oh yeah, pal, I’ve heard your name and boy, I sure hope you can come play on one of my records.” So I worked with him on a record after that and played flute, piccolo and recorders.
Later on when we got out there I used to play flute on “Sunshine on my Shoulders” and I decided to pick up the soprano sax and play it. He turned and smiled and after the show he said, “man, you got to play that saxophone on ‘Shoulders’ from now on.” So I kind of introduced that sound, updating his music with the saxophone and the alto saxophone as well. “My Sweet Lady,” all those kind of songs. So he gave me a lot of freedom and I kind of stretched out. We played some rock and roll with Johnny and the Sharks when he started that whole rock and roll segment on our shows. I was playing baritone sax so we were really playing some rock and roll out there, “Johnny B Goode” and all those kinds of songs. He had a lot of fun.
So I got to see the full spectrum of John, because his music in the beginning was love songs, like “Annie’s Song” and stuff like that and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and everything. He got into the environmental situation where we did one whole tour called “Plant A Tree”, so he would make the announcement every night trying to convince the audience to plant a tree the next day. That’s when they were cutting down the rainforest. He was very conscious of everything that was going on around him. Even his flying, he was a great pilot but he just made an error, he was trying to switch over the gas tanks up there and only had 500 feet before he plunged into the ocean. I was real sad when I heard that news.
MW: The years you played with John, I’m going to assume at the same time you were also doing a good amount of session work. How did you balance those two worlds?
JH: I was doing like three sessions a day and he would tour in the summer. Sometimes in the summer, the session work would diminish a little bit because a lot of people were out touring, all the artists that you’d normally record with, so they wouldn’t be in the studio. So I was doing stuff like with the Beach Boys, Pet Sounds and sessions like that and they could wait until you were available, which worked out good for me. I was able to work with John and we’d fly back home for a few days and I’d do sessions and then get back out on the road. So it worked out real good for me.
MW: Can you talk about that experience of working with the Beach Boys on those Pet Sounds sessions? Were those lengthy sessions for you?
JH: No, what Brian did [was he] worked on eight bars at a time [on songs like] “Good Vibrations.” He knew each eight-bar section what he wanted to do. So he worked on eight bars on a three hour session. Then we’d take a break and work on the next eight bars and it just went like that. Then he would edit all of that together, so if you ever sit down and listen to “Good Vibrations,” you’ll see where he actually edited one section into the next, because they were different tempos and stuff. It was very interesting — he was a genius.
Paul Tanner was there, who invented the machine [the Electro-Theremin] that made that weird sound on “Good Vibrations”. So he stood there and played that melody on there. [Imitates sound] There was a big metal ring on top of a box and it was an oscillator and when you put your hand up close, the note would go higher and when you pulled your hand away it would go lower. So he knew how to play melodies on it. Brian tried to do it but it wouldn’t work for him very well. So he said, “You have Paul Tanner standing there, let him do it” — so he stood there and played that melody while we worked on that one section. [Tanner unfortunately passed away a few days after this interview was conducted.]
MW: I wanted to ask about that, because that particular song is legendary for having a lengthy recording process. I wondered how much of that you were part of, because there were so many sessions and studios involved in making that record.
JH: I played on “God Only Knows” and I played alto flute on that, on the intro and throughout the song. Brian used to tell me to bring everything I owned and that was a lot of stuff. So I’d have to set everything up and he’d look at the instruments and say “let me hear that” and I’d play it for him and he’d say “yeah, lets use that one.” I’d sit there and use either a tenor sax or a flute or a bass sax — I didn’t know what I was going to be playing and the other guy next to me, Jay Migliori, he would have his flutes and saxes and he’d have Jay play something.
He’d tell us what he wanted [us] to play, the melodies or whether we were going to play. Nothing was written out. It was all arrangements [that he was doing in his head and] it really stayed with you. That was a different way of recording; it was kind of unique because you wouldn’t forget those parts. You could play them with a lot more ease rather than sitting there reading your parts.
MW: With the Beach Boys; it sounds like you were actually able to enjoy that experience. But with the nature of your work, I’d guess that there were records that you played on where you were just in and out. Are there groups that come to mind that you wish you would have had more of an experience with, as legendary as some of those songs became?
JH: When I did “Goin’ Up The Country” for Canned Heat, just Alan Wilson and I were in the studio, putting that flute on — and then he put on a second one and then a third one. I said “are you sure you want all these flutes on there?” He said, “yeah yeah I’m going to mix them left, center and right.” So I’m driving down the freeway a few months later and I hear “dah dah dah” and there’s my three flutes, jumpin’ out of the speaker at me. I thought wow, [because] he had them mixed right up there in front.
I wish I could have played more with Canned Heat and hung out with those guys more. I know the bass player today, he’s still alive.
With Brian, it was just another session. It was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys but you didn’t think much of it. Elvis Presley, you walked in and thought “oh that’s Elvis that’s cool.” Then you’d leave and you’d go walk in with Sinatra or somebody [like that] the next time around. I actually worked with Jimi Hendrix, but didn’t know who he was at all. You hear about these things in later years and you say “man I wish I had stayed longer and talked with these guys, got to know them a little better.” I did get to work in a couple of movies with Elvis later on when he did all of those movies, I sidelined with him and we hung out a lot and jammed and stuff — he was a great guy.
MW: When you look at the slate of material that you’ve played on in your career are you happy with the amount of credit that you’ve gotten for what you’ve done over the years?
JH: Yeah, I really am, because like someone once said, “they may not know your name, but they’ve heard you.” So I am glad to know that there’s a lot of records I’ve played on. If you go to Allmusic.com and punch in “Jim Horn,” you’ll see every artist I’ve recorded with and worked with. It’s a long long list and I’m real proud of it.
I was actually there at the right time, you know? Because today it’s real hard for studio musicians to break into that occupation. It’s just not there like it used to be. But I’m real proud of all that. Getting to work with the [Rolling] Stones over in England, I spent a couple of months over there. Bobby Keys and I would drive around and work with the Who and you know, George Harrison, I worked with him quite a bit, and Ringo [Starr]. After a while you become jaded — it’s a strange thing to say but, “oh there’s Ringo, I’m going to work with him today, that’s cool.” And then you walk out the door and you don’t realize, like with John Lennon, I worked with him and George and now they’re gone and you go, “oh man.”
Those were the Beatles and only two of them are left. It’s those kind of things that remind me that “you were a part of history with these guys.” And with John Denver, it couldn’t be any better than him. He left his mark big time and people are still listening to his music. He’s a great guy, he took care of me [and we] always traveled first class. We always had a great time with him.
MW: How did you end up going down this road, where you did both full time work as a band member and also session work? It seems like a lot of times, players either go one way or the other. Either they’re a session guy or they’re in a band. You did both. How did you end up going that route?
JH: Well, I got busy.. I started out with Duane Eddy in high school when I was 17. I was out there for five years with him. I met contractors, as they call them. They’re the guys that hire musicians for sessions in Hollywood. I met one through Duane Eddy. He heard me playing saxophone and said, “Do you play any doubles? Do you play like flute or clarinet or any other saxophones?” And I said, “yeah I play flute and clarinet and I have a couple of more saxes.” So he said, “If I were you, I’d study as many instruments as you can.” So I learned how to play oboe and the English horn.
I played all of the oboe and English horn on the Carpenters records later on. The more instruments I played, the busier I was. So, I was asked to join bands and go on the road — even Van Morrison asked me to go out on the road. But they weren’t paying very well, you know? I would love to have toured with him. That would have been one of my dreams because I love his music. I just had to stay in the studios or I would have lost that, something that I had started, my dream, you know? That was a big part of my life was to pursue that dream of being a studio musician and playing on all those records, I guess.
MW: You were certainly a valuable commodity, because of your diversity. You had a huge arsenal of instruments at your fingertips.
JH: Yeah. There were only a few guys in town that were doing what I did. There were a few that specialized [in certain things] like, Plas Johnson, he played on “The Pink Panther” and the [Henry] Mancini records, but he was mainly a soloist on just tenor [saxophone] and they came and saw me play flute and oboe and saxophones and clarinet. So I was more diversified and it paid off to study those other instruments and practice. My mother taught me how to practice. When I got my saxophone, she said, “here’s this saxophone for you, if you promise you’re going to practice.” I was 12 years old and I said, “I promise.” I started practicing so much that they had to stop me every once in a while. I was driving them crazy. When dinner was ready, I had to stop. You have to really practice and be determined and have a dream if you’re going to pursue anything in life, I think.
MW: What was the most challenging session you recall?
JH: It’s really hard to say because I think Hugo Montenegro, he did an instrumental record in Hollywood and he had me play all the instruments. He wrote for oboe, English horn, flute and clarinet, saxes and a lot of them were [in] very hard keys. He didn’t put them in easier keys for me to play in. It was so hard I was sitting there sweating, playing some of these melodies. Here I am surrounded by strings and other horns and the rhythm section. It was probably one of the hardest sessions I ever did. He just assumed that keys didn’t matter. But it would had been nice for me to have sat down and said, “A flat? Can we do this in F or G or something?” I got through it — I struggled through it, but it wasn’t easy. That was probably one of the hardest ones — I think there was four sessions we had to record. It was a long day.
MW: I figured there’d be sessions where maybe you were giving them a flute part that’s not exactly what they want, and you’d have to tangle with it a bit.
JH: Well, with Steely Dan they tried three saxophone players on one song. I think I played baritone and then they tried tenor and they tried alto. They kept the guy that played tenor [because] they liked that sound better. I did play on a solo for them but it wasn’t the sound they wanted. But it wasn’t miserable — I had fun playing it.
There really weren’t that many sessions that were that difficult. I’ll tell you, the hardest ones like Shaft — I did that. You do these movie calls and the bell rings, the lights all go out and just the lights on the music stands come on and then you have eight clicks and then the music starts. You just can’t make any mistakes, you have to come in on the right places and you really have to be on your toes.
You go in from nine in the morning until probably four or five in the evening. You worked all day under a much more rigorous schedule and [found yourself] having to concentrate all day long on reading and not making mistakes. You’ve got a whole lot of people in that soundstage who do films — all of the strings and horns and woodwinds, it’s incredible. We sat down, Bud Shank and I, we played the flutes on the intro on Shaft. The very first part was our flutes and when we heard those clicks, I had to come in. [imitates flute line] and it had to be perfect. So I learned with the best guys. I sat next to some of the best players and they’d always help you out if you have any questions and that was the one thing that helps you through something like that as well.
MW: I have to ask one more here. Your memories of working on those Traveling Wilburys records. What was that like?
JH: That was a lot of fun. They’d have the tracks already cut, so I would go in there and put on parts for them and they would double everything that I did. So sometimes I’d put anywhere from 10 to 12 saxophones on a song and they would double everything. One time they had me sit on a toilet and play my soprano sax out into the hallway and the microphone would be down at the end of the hall. I thought they were joking with me, when they told me to go sit on the toilet and play my soprano.[There was] just crazy stuff like that. One night they had to finish a song, so [Bob] Dylan and Tom Petty and George and Jeff Lynne were all in the studio. They gave me some beer to drink and invited me to come in while they finished writing the lyrics to this one song. So I said “man, I would love to, that would be great.” But you didn’t film it, or take any pictures you just kept all of that in your head. It was a great night, watching them finish the lyrics on the song.
MW: You are a walking piece of history.
JH: Well thank you. I’m writing a book right now and hope it’s done by the end of this year.
MW: Let’s go back to John Denver for a moment. What’s the one thing you took away with playing with John all those years? What’s the one thing you remember best?
JH: I realized that he had perfect pitch and that he had a photographic memory. That’s why John could come on stage and hardly ever miss any lyrics to a song. If he did, he’d stop, giggle and laugh in the middle and say “take two.” He was always ready. He was probably one of the best entertainers I’ve ever worked with out there. Great guy. He always meant well, [but] he kept to himself. He and I would have dinner late at night after the shows because nobody else wanted to hang out. So I’d go hang out with him and have dinner. We had some great evenings, just the two of us. We got real close. I miss him a lot. He was just a really good guy.
MW: How did you see yourself growing as a player, working with John? What do you think got added to your overall style. Did you see yourself change as a player during the time you were working with John?
JH: When I had to emulate those sounds for him, like birds and water and stuff, those are just some ideas I had and then I embellished on them and made them really sail into the air and made more out of them. He loved it, the more I did it. Then I started playing flute a little more classical on some things. So I’d get a real pretty sound on melodies for him on “Annie’s Song,” on some of the background parts and “Poems, Prayers and Promises.” It would be just his guitar and me on the flute. I learned how to control my flute sounds and change them to his songs. I learned a lot while I was out there with him. Playing the saxophone, you play it differently with John. I was playing real pretty and [adding] happy or sad [inflections] when I played those songs with him on my saxes. I did learn a lot playing his music.