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by Jonathan Singer
Transcribed below is a letter written by Jonathan Singer to David Hinckley of The New York Daily News. The letter led to Mr. Hinckley's article on Paul Griffin which appeared in TNYDN in March of 1999.
Paul Griffin passed away June 14, 2000.
Jonathan Singer is a New York writer living in Charlotte, NC. He has written about music (which is like dancing about architecture, according to Laurie Anderson) for the last 25 years. He co-wrote the recent autobiography of singer Cissy Houston, "How Sweet the Sound" (Doubleday).
March 4, 1999
Mr. David Hinckley
The New York Daily News
450 W. 33rd St., 3rd floor
New York, NY 10001
One of our heroes is very sick. Paul Griffin, probably New York's finest studio keyboard player, needs a liver transplant. Neil Baruch at CBS, a childhood friend, suggested alerting you about this wonderful musician's dire circumstances.
As you probably know, Paul began his career in the late 50s playing piano and organ with King Curtis' band. He quickly became a Zelig-like figure, playing keyboards on some of pop music's most historic and memorable moments: Bob Dylan's first "electric" records, all of Bacharach/David's classic Dionne Warwick sides and a slew of hits by the Shirelles, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan and many more.
Think of the organ intro to Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now"...the gospel piano behind Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"and Don McLean's "Miss American Pie"...the tack piano on B.J.Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Fallin'on My Head" and Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"...Dionne Warwick's "Walk on By"...Paul Simon's "Tenderness" (There Goes Rhymin' Simon ) -- these all feature Paul Griffin at the keyboard.
Last year, while collaborating with Cissy Houston on her autobiography, "How Sweet the Sound" (Doubleday), Paul's name came up as soon as we began discussing her 60s session work. A jaded, session veteran, Cissy was uncharacteristically effusive about Pau l. "Paul Griffin can play anything," she said. Of course, she was right. One on-line discography lists over two hundred albums Griffin has played keyboards on: Sixties New York pop like the Shirelles' "Tonight's the Night," "Mama Said," and "Soldier Boy." Neil Diamond and Van Morrison's first hits for Bert Berns. Folk rock albums by Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, Peter, Paul & Mary's Album 1700 and Late Again ; Judy Collins' Judith . Debut albums by John Denver and Carly Simon. Bonnie Raitt's Streetlights . Jazz records by George Benson, Quincy Jones, and Nina Simone. Albums by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stephen Bishop and Blues Traveler.
His warmth came through right over the phone. "I'm in awe of what you guys [writers] do," he said even as I gushed about his contribution to Dionne Warwick, Steely Dan's "Gaucho," Donald Fagen's "Kamakiriad" and Dylan's first rock'n roll records; Bringing It All Back Home , Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde . He seemed grateful to be acknowledged but shied away from the praise with an "aw, shucks" bashfulness. "We made a lot of music back then," he finally confessed. "We didn't realize the importance of it until years later."
While we spoke, I discovered that Paul lived just three blocks from where I was working in Riverdale. A few days later, I met him on the sidewalk outside his apartment building. The first thing you noticed was the smile, a big elastic one which rarely left his face. "He was always in a positive, humorus mood," says Hugh McCracken, another legendary New York musician who played guitar alongside Paul on hundreds of sessions. "He never had an attitude with anybody. A lot of musicians had an attitude with those who didn't play as good as they did. Paul would always acknowledge or flatter a player on something that was worthy. And he always was very insightful about other musicians; very sensitive...always a gentleman." Small and wiry, wearing jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt, he looked much younger than sixty-three. Only the few specks of gray that dotted his close-cropped afro and the old black aviator frames reminded you that he already had close to forty years in the music business.
He led the way to the building's basement where he unlocked a room usually reserved for dusty old bikes and baby carriages. The right side of the room was still filled with cobwebs and old boxes. But the other side was a mad musician's lair of carefully arranged keyboards, synthesizers and computer monitors. He laughed, apologized for the mess and offered a chair while he wheeled around on a little stool, from keyboard to computer, finishing up a children's project.
Since the 80s, the New York session scene has dried up. Gone are the days when a top player like Paul could bounce from session to session covering three or four in one day. When Phil Spector was working at his favorite room, Mira Sound, in the lobby of the dumpy Americana Hotel on 47th Street. When Bacharach was recording at Associated on Seventh Avenue next to the Metropole...Phil Ramone was at A&R on 48th Street and Brooks Arthur was cutting Leiber and Stoller's artists at Century Sound. When musicians were working so regularly they could run a tab for months at Jim and Andy's, a great little bar/restaurant downstairs from A&R.
The work looked like it would never end, but it did. The 70s was the last great decade; before drum machines replaced real drummers, and sequencing, sampling and Midis changed the way music was made in the studio.
If you were smart, you socked something away during the good years. Few did. As you know, musicians do not receive royalties from a hit record. Record companies pay into a fund based on the number of sessions a musician has worked in a calendar year. These monies are disbursed to the musician through the union. One musician said that some years when the session work was running heavy, it was not unusual to receive checks from this fund for fifteen thousand dollars. Now, he said he's lucky if he sees a check for fifteen hundred.
These days, musicians must rely on contract work, teaching and advertising jingles to get by. The shingle they hang, a memento from the good old days, is the gold record. Hanging wildly askew on Griffin's drab, gray and white walls was a gold record for Steely Dan's "Aja." That's Paul playing electric piano and singing harmony with Michael McDonald on "Peg." In the middle of the floor, atop a pile of old cartons was a framed, gold 45 of Don McLean's "American Pie" -- forgotten, amidst the rubble, as Griffin's brilliant piano playing on the record generally is.
Paul displayed no bitterness for the elusive fortunes of the music business. He recalled, rather, with great fondness, his first sessions in 1961 with Cissy Houston at Scepter Records. Hearing that gospel thing in her voice, "I was instantly filled with love for her and her whole family," he said softly. Hearing her niece, twenty-year-old Dionne Warwick's voice for the first time at a session, he was so struck with its beauty, he says he forgot to play.
A little disappointment did creep into his voice as the conversation returned to two of his most well-known gigs; both massive successes that barely rubbed off on him: Don McLean's "Miss American Pie" and Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." He quickly excused Dylan for underutilizing the great band that produced this milestone; recognizing that it was more important at the time for Dylan to slow down and save his life than merely hold a band together. But he still remembers the shock and bewilderment of seeing Don McLean on national television, while "Miss American Pie" reigned supreme on the airwaves. McLean sat on a stool and strummed the hit solo -- without a single other musician. "Hey, what happened to the band?" Griffin laughed incredulously.
He said he had grown up in Harlem during the 40s with no male role models "except the junkies, the pimps and the numbers runners." His mother made sure he was in church every Sunday -- up front. At Paradise Baptist on 135th Street, his regular seat for years was in the pew behind the church pianist. Paul would drift off during the service and find himself watching the pianist's hands. This went on for years. One day after church, Paul slid onto the piano bench and began doodling around on the keyboard. After a few more times, he found he had a knack for it. When the church's pianist eventually died, Paul took her place.
As an eighth-grader, his dream was to attend New York's prestigious High School of Music and Art. A judgemental guidance counselor, observing either Griffin's humble station or mindful of Music and Art's high academic requirements, assured him he would never be admitted. Griffin slumped out of her office and began weeping quietly in the hall. At just that moment, a teacher who had befriended Griffin happened by.
"Why are you crying ?" he asked.
Through tears, Griffin explained. The teacher was appalled at the guidance counselor's insensitivity. He promised Paul that he would not only reprimand the counselor but that Paul would audition for Music and Art just like anyone else. Griffin passed the audition. Four years later in 1953, he graduated from the High School of Music and Art .
King Curtis offered Paul his first opportunity record in the late 50s.
"Can you make the gig?" Curtis asked him.
Make the what?
"Can you make the session?" Curtis repeated.
What's a gig...what's a session? Paul was so green he needed a translator. But he was no neophyte at the keyboard. He went on the road with Curtis and eventually cut ten albums with him. Griffin became a permanent fixture at Scepter Records sessions with players like Mickey Baker, Jimm y Lewis and Panama Francis. Beginning in 1960 with "Tonight's the Night," under the direction of producer, Luther Dixon, Griffin and company played on virtually all of the Shirelles' records (and most of Scepter's releases). Paul was one of the arrangers on "Mama Said" and Tommy Hunt's "Human." His playing on all of Chuck Jackson's early hits cemented a lifelong friendship between the two.
Paul quickly became the first-call keyboard player for producers like Leiber and Stoller, Jerry Wexler, Bert Berns, Jerry Ragovoy and Burt Bacharach and Hal David. For Berns, Griffin played on the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout," most of Solomon Burke's hits and Van Morrison's first New York sessions. Ragovoy used Griffin almost exclusively on hits he wrote and produced like Garnett Mimms and the Enchanters' "Cry Baby," the original versions of Janis Joplin's signature, "Piece of My Heart" (Erma Franklin), "Try" (Lorraine Ellison) and "Time Is On My Side" (Kai Winding).
The spell Griffin cast over Ragovoy was so strong that to this day, Ragovoy says he finds himself sitting at the keyboard still under the influence: "Oh, my God," he says, listening to himself play. "I'm Paul Griffin today!"
But if any one producer monopolized Griffin, it was Burt Bacharach. From Dionne Warwick's first records; "Don't Make Me Over," "Walk On By," "Anyone Who Had a Heart" through B.J.Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" -- if Bacharach/David wrote it, then Paul Griffin probably played the piano part. Wait a minute. Bacharach, no slouch as a pianist, gave Paul nearly all of his own piano parts to play?
"Do you know why he did that?" Griffin asked. "Because Burt used to love to come into the studio and conduct. That's why he gave me those parts to play."
Other musicians might have kept quiet about Bacharach's idiosyncrasies and just let their own legend grow. Not Griffin. Try to compliment him on that little organ part for Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now" and he humbly smiles away the accolade. "A Bert Keyes arrangement," he says, proud to give credit where credit is due.
The modesty isn't false. Despite forty years in the business, despite the milestones (and all those Bacharach piano parts!) he still has a sense of wonder about where he's been and the talent of others. Mention Frank Owens, another piano player on Dylan' s Highway 61 Revisited , and his voice drops to a hush. Here was a sideman, he whispers, who was so classy and so good he unwittingly stole the gig from the headliner right onstage at the Apollo. Griffin was so knocked-out by Aretha Franklin's piano playing, that he refused to play on the session for "Think." "They wanted me to play that [piano] intro she does. I said, `No way! That's her !' Then again, Griffin was playing with Aretha three years before Atlantic signed her; when Clyde Otis cut her for Columbia.
If Paul Griffin's jazz/blues and gospel chops are not as easily recalled on the productions of Bacharach, Ragovoy, Wexler and Berns, his contribution to Bob Dylan's seminal mid-sixties records is already writ large in pop music history. Griffin was present at Dylan's first rock'n roll session in 1965 for the album, Bringing It All Back Home . No fluke, Dylan requested him three more times; for his next album, Highway 61 Revisited which included Paul's tasty work on "Like a Rolling Stone," and the sessions that included "Positively Fourth Street," "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence" and "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" Dylan also tapped him years later to overdub organ on Blood on the Tracks .
But Paul Griffin's most extraordinary -- and often uncredited -- work with Bob Dylan occurred on January 25, 1966. There has always been some confusion about the players on this first New York session for Dylan's Blonde on Blonde . Because the album was finished a few months later in Nashville, the album lists only the Nashville musicians. The two New York sessions, the first of which produced "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)," are frequently credited to members of the Band . Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson might have played bass and guitar on one of the New York sessions. But just a single listening erases any doubt about who played piano. Al Kooper, who played organ at the session, remembers Paul well.
"The piano playing on "One of Us Must Know" is quite magnificent," Kooper told writer Andy Gill. "It influenced me enormously as a pianist. It's probably Paul Griffin's finest moment."
Griffin's playing on "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" is reminiscent of what he would play five years later on Don McLean's "American Pie" -- but even more brilliant in its intensity and improvisation. The song is an emotional confession of misconnects and apologies from the singer to some woman who has tragically slipped out of his life. Griffin gives the song its tragic depth -- and height. He picks his way sensitively through the verses; but at other times, he prowls beneath the words with Judgement and an ominous gospel lick that he stokes until he has climbed to the verse's peak. At the chorus, Griffin unleashes a symphony; hammering his way up and down the keyboard, half Gershwin, half gospel, all heart. The follow-up, a killer left hand figure that links the chorus to the verse, releases none of the song's tension. Then, on the last chorus, not content to repeat the same brilliant part, Griffin's playing is so breathtaking, so completely embodies the lyric, that he enters into some other dimension. For several seconds, on one of Dylan's best songs, Griffin makes Dylan seem almost earthbound.
"It's great, two-fisted, gospel piano playing," Kooper says, "played with the utmost of taste."
Paul Griffin doesn't remember it. He's momentarily bewildered, almost apologetic for not recalling something others hold so dear. The part was probably something he'd heard in Paradise Baptist church at least a hundred times before. But do not mistake an isolated, fuzzy memory for a moment that he is unaware of. He is well aware of this music's significance -- in Paul Griffin's life.
"The sound that you hear is the sound of gratitude," he says simply. "If it wasn't for music, I don't know what would have become of me. I'd had a lot of jobs -- I was a cutter in the garment district, I delivered groceries for a supermarket -- but nothing with any kind of future. So, what you hear is the sound of being thankful...for being able to play...for being tapped to play on a session [Dylan's] like that...thankful...as if I'd been saved from something horrible. "
Several months after this conversation, Paul came down with pneumonia. Over the last year, he's been in and out of the hospital. Then, a few weeks ago, doctors told him he needed a liver transplant. After a lifetime in music, "something horrible" yet threatens to overtake Paul Griffin. Doctors do not comment on one's suitability as an organ recipient. Your name goes into a computer and the doctors try to get you ready if and when a replacement organ becomes available. Meanwhile, Paul and his family wait.
Would it not be fitting and wonderful if some of the artists, musicians and executives who so appreciated Paul while his smile lit up a session and his playing lit up their hearts, could now raise up as one and help him. Even the listening public -- anyone who remembers all those Shirelles records, Chuck Jackson's "Any Day Now," "American Pie," or the first exquisite twenty seconds of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." Anyone, in fact, who, like Don McLean, can still remember how that music used to make them smile.
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