After a few years of plundering my parents’ vinyl collection and taping songs off the radio, I finally got around to buying my first cassette in late 1985. This was it:
I don’t really remember what made me want to buy it — my parents already owned Cross’ second album, Another Page, and I thought it was too wimpy for words — but I do recall seeing a brief segment about it on Entertainment Tonight and thinking the cover was cool. Maybe that was all it took.
What I do know for sure is that this marked the beginning of my fascination with liner notes. Starting with Every Turn of the World, I made a hobby (or a religion — don’t you judge me) out of poring over j-cards and album inserts (and later, reluctantly, CD booklets), learning what to expect from the producers, mixers, engineers, and musicians of what was actually a rather small pop universe. Buy enough albums — which I certainly did — and you started to see a pattern emerging: producers, mixers, and even labels stood for certain sounds, and so did the most popular session guys. Some of them were so ubiquitous that their names became sort of meaningless (hello, Paulinho da Costa), but in most cases, if you saw a guy’s name pop up in the liner notes, you knew what that meant for the album.
One of those guys was bassist Joe Chemay, who anchored the Every Turn of the World rhythm section with drummer John Robinson, and who racked up a truly impressive series of session credits in the L.A. pop/rock scene throughout the ’70s and ’80s before relocating to Nashville, where he immediately set about becoming one of the go-to bass players for country artists. I’ve always wanted to know more about his approach to his work, and was lucky enough to get him on the phone for the following interview, during which we covered his prolific session career, his work as a solo artist, and his new business venture.
Let’s talk a little about the company you’re a partner in, Trifectone. How did that come together?
Biff Watson, Ed Seay and myself have been working together here for 15 years in different configurations, and for the last ten years or so, we’ve been part of a project where we write and produce the music for Bob Kingsley’s CT 40 Countdown show. We had so much fun doing that, we decided to form a company where we could work together. We’re trying to develop a few things and find some writing work as a team.
I first became aware of you through your work on Christopher Cross’ Every Turn of the World record, which came out in 1985.
That was a fun record. Really fun to do.
Well, that was the first time I read your name in a set of liner notes, but obviously, you’d already played on a number of recordings, both as a session musician and a solo artist. How had you defined your approach to your career by that point? Had you emotionally set aside your solo work?
Yeah, pretty much. I shifted focus, because I wanted to stay in town — I had a young family at the time, and I didn’t want to be gone. I’d do a few trips to Europe here and there, if something was great, like a fun tour for a week, but I didn’t want to be gone most of the time.
It seems like being a session bass player in the mid-’80s — especially on pop records — might have been a frustrating experience in some ways, because — just to use Every Turn of the World as one example — the bass was often shoved aside in the mix, or given very little room to really organically groove, especially if you were playing with a drum machine.
Well, you know, mix styles change, and sometimes there’s more bottom end than others, but the groove always has to be in there to make the top end feel right. There were a lot of drum machines at the time — producers started having their own home studios, and they’d just build projects from the ground up with machines and replace a few elements later, to add a little life to it. I was doing a fair amount of that stuff, and that’s why I ended up moving to Nashville. We still do things in the room with the artist, and I love that interplay. It’s one of the reasons I got into this business.
Drum machines were fine, though. I appreciated what they did to bring awareness to…time. You know? [Laughs]
It’s interesting that you say that, because you played with Dennis Wilson, who got a pretty bad rap in that area.
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] Dennis had his problems. But there were times when he just felt so good playing. He knew what to do, he understood the style. There were times when I toured with them that it was just such a joy. He floated around a little bit, but it still felt good.
You also played with Leon Russell, which would have been another series of gigs where feel was important.
Yeah, Leon hired us when I first got to L.A. That was great for me, because we’d fly out on, say, a Thursday, and his bus would be in Texas or somewhere, and we’d go up in the bus and do two or three nights on the road, then fly back Sunday or Monday. So that enabled me to stay in L.A. and do sessions or demos — just kind of get that ball rolling.
I’d guess that for a lot of the work you did, particularly in the ’80s, being able to come in and just lay down the track was as much of an asset as any individual style you may have brought to the performance.
But coming from your background as a songwriter and performer, how did you find your artistic expression during this period?
Um…[Chuckles]…you know, I can’t really say. One of the requirements of a successful studio musician is to be chameleon-like, and L.A. in particular, at that time, there was so much variety going on. One day, it’s Lionel Richie, the next it’s Kenny Rogers, and the next it’s someone completely different. Debby Boone or someone.
Your list of credits is pretty eclectic. I just noticed that you did some sessions for the New Monkees.
And the old Monkee. [Laughs] Did a lot of work with Nesmith. That album, I think, was just an attempt to capitalize on the original band.
Definitely, but the musicians who played on it were top-shelf.
Yeah, that’s true.
So for a project like that, how would you approach it? Is it just a paycheck gig, or is it a chance to work with some really talented players?
Well, all those things. I mean, if it’s not fun, there’s no reason to do it. Sometimes it’s not fun, but it’s really rare. Especially here in Nashville — and in L.A., too — it’s such a joy for us to do this that whatever project we’re doing is special for us, and we do whatever we can to pull it out.
I’d like to name a few of the artists you’ve worked with, and get your responses.
Yeah, he had left the Commodores, and he didn’t know what to do. He had a good friend, Kenny Rogers, and one day he was over at Kenny’s studio, Lion Share, and he was walking down the hall, saying “I just left the band, I don’t know anybody, I don’t know what to do” — just trying to feel Kenny out for some advice. We were in there recording with the door open, and he walked by, pointed at the door, and said, “That’s what I want.”
So he booked us for some sessions, and it turned into a bunch. I think “Truly” was the first thing that came out.
I did some background vocals for him. It was a short session — maybe three or four hours, and it was done.
That album was released the same year you worked with Roger Waters, which is a pretty broad jump.
Yeah. He was in L.A. doing part of the production for The Wall, and he wanted a bunch of big background vocals. He called Bruce Johnston, because — the story I’ve heard, anyway — he wanted the Beach Boys to sing on it. Someone found out they couldn’t do that, but Bruce put together a section that could do it. I’d done a lot of singing with Bruce — we’d done an Elton John record, and an Eric Carmen record — so he put together five or six of us together. When it came time to do the live show, Roger approached us and we ended up performing here and in Europe.
You go way back with Bruce Johnston. I’m guessing he was the reason you became involved in those Dennis Wilson sessions.
Yeah, he helped me get going in the beginning. He got me on some things — you know, that’s what happens.
Shania Twain, Come On Over.
You know, some sessions take three hours, and you talk about them for years, but her record took three and a half weeks. Working with Mutt Lange is different. It was definitely a much slower pace than we were used to, because he’s such a perfectionist. It was fun to do, though.
The Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces.
That was more of a regular Nashville recording, where we’d do three or four things in a day. But they were real good — they could sing, and they could go out and play.
When did you relocate?
It was in 1989.
That Nashville migration became pretty popular for a lot of session musicians in the ’90s. When you left, was it because you were noticing fewer jobs?
Well, really, I was tired of the traffic. Where I lived was 45 miles away, and it was so hard to gauge when to leave. One snag, and you’re in a three-hour traffic jam, and you can’t do that when you have a 9:00 downbeat with a film session. I ended up having to leave the house at 6 AM, and a lot of times I’d get there sweating at one minute to 9, and other times I’d get there at 6:40.
And also, the industry had shifted. There weren’t as many record dates — definitely not as many live studio band record dates — so a lot of us were doing TV and film sessions. Which is its own unique thing, but I preferred to work on records, and I knew that was still going on in Nashville, so we packed up. And then later, yeah, Dann Huff came out here — or came back out here, because this is where he grew up — and (ex-Toto bassist) David Hungate came out here a couple of years before me, and my dear friend Paul Leim, who I played with almost every day for about ten years, had moved here the year before.
How have you seen the type of sessions you’re doing change since you moved? It’s become more fashionable for pop artists to record in Nashville.
Yeah, there’s been some pop influx, but most of it’s country — the stuff I’ve done, anyway. I was lucky to get onto a long line of great female artists when I first got here — everybody from Martina McBride to Shania Twain to the Dixie Chicks.
And then a few years ago, you released another solo album.
Yeah, that was something I did just in my spare time. We can have pretty efficient studios in our houses now, and it was something I pieced together when I had the time. I’m always writing.
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