The Artistry of Hugh McCracken

Chances are you have heard Hugh McCracken. If you lived in the 1970s, then unless you have been sleeping through that decade, you have heard his tasteful guitar work on some of that period’s biggest hits. Anyone reading this post most likely knows at least a few of the songs I will be covering here. But like many session musicians who were ona first call list for top producers and artists, Hugh McCracken is unknown to the public at large. He made a decision early in his career of becoming a studio musician over life on the road, keeping him away of the public eye. Attesting to McCracken’s avoidance of giving interviews, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker said: “If you could do an interview with Hughie it will turn out to be very amusing and informative. He is renown to his fellow players for his sense of humor. If you ever see one of Hughie McCracken’s picks it says on it ‘this pick stolen from Hugh McCracken’. I’ve never seen anything by him in print.” Never the flashy musician, he performed what the song needed, even when his part was in the background and low in the mix. It is difficult to recognize his style or sound, as he was very versatile in multiple genres and could fit his performance into anything that was required. He has credits on over 500 recordings beginning in the mid-1960s, and I am pretty sure it is not a complete list given the habit of dropping credits for session musicians throughout the history of recorded music. Here are some of the highlights from that amazing career, and for the record this list does not include contributions he made to recordings by artists such as Roland Kirk, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Graham Parker, Aretha Franklin, Phoebe Snow, Bob Dylan, The Four Seasons, Dr. John, Herbie Mann, Mike Mainieri, Gordon Lightfoot, Melanie Safka, Lou Donaldson, Gary Wright, Ron Carter and many more.

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In the middle 1960s, McCracken played in a New Jersey cover band called The Funatics, under the stage name of Mack Pierce. They released two singles, credited to Hugh McCracken and The Funatics, before evolving into Mario & The Funatics when they worked with saxophonist Mario Madison. You Blow My Mind, written by Hugh McCracken and recorded in 1965, is a fine example of his style at the time.

Hugh McCracken With The Funatics ‎– You Blow My Mind

1967 was a breakthrough year for McCracken as a studio musician. Playing electric guitar next to another studio great – Al Gorgoni, who played acoustic guitar – they accompanied Neil Diamond when he embarked on a solo career after earning his living as a songwriter in the Brill Building with hit songs such as I’m a Believer. With Bert Berns as producer, Diamond started manufacturing hits for himself. A good example from those early days with Hugh McCracken is the country-tinged Kentucky Woman, a song that a year later got a very different interpretation by Deep Purple.

One of McCracken’s best-known guitar parts was recorded that same year when he participated in Van Morrison’s debut solo album Blowin’ Your Mind! Morrison signed a contract with Bet Berns and flew to New York to record the album. Berns got some of the best studio musicians in town, including Eric Gale on bass guitar (and a great solo), Gary Chester on drums and The Sweet Inspirations (of Chain of Fools fame) as back-up vocals. Within a few days they recorded eight songs, one of them the iconic Brown Eyed Girl. One of the most recognized opening guitar riffs on classic rock radio.

Brown Eyed Girl single

We skip through 1968 and an appearance on the recording sessions for the classic Eli and the Thirteenth Confession by Laura Nyro, and we come to 1969 with a number of examples that display Hugh McCracken’s versatility. In June that year he played on B.B. King’s album Completely Well, including one of his biggest hits, his version of Roy Hawkins’ The Thrill is Gone. The solo guitar licks are all by the King, but listen to the other electric guitar while he sings. B.B. King never played chords while he sang.

Totally different was his contribution to mega successful bubble gum made-up group The Archies who that year released their number 1 hit Sugar Sugar. Like The Partridge Family, the band topped the chart without actually existing.  A better example of McCracken’s guitar work is a lesser known hit called Jingle Jangle, with lead vocals shared by Toni Wine, the lady behind A Groovy Kind of Love three years earlier.

Skipping to 1971 brings us to some of the guitarist’s best work, starting with a hidden gem of an album called Mike Corbett & Jay Hirsh with Hugh McCracken. Corbett and Hirsh were previously in the band Mr. Flood’s Party who disappeared from the scene after a sole album. Dipping his tows in psychedelic folk rock, his work on songs such as Fly With Me is very much in line with bands of that period like Poco and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

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McCracken’s best shot at reaching stardom came when none less than Sir Paul McCartney asked him to join a new band he was contemplating along with his wife Linda after recording their album Ram. Hugh remembers: “My answering service got a call asking me if I’d like to audition for Ram, but I was in Florida working on an Aretha Franklin record and didn’t pick up the message until I got back into town. I was disappointed but happy that David had gotten the job.” David Spinozza was a fellow studio musician who started recording with McCartney, but had other commitments. The couple were persistent. “Linda asked me to hang on while she put Paul on the phone. Paul simply asked me if I could be in the studio the following morning at nine o’clock. I canceled the sessions I had and made the date.” The highlight of McCracken’s work on Ram is undoubtedly the piece of music combining twelve discrete sections otherwise known as Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey. McCracken: “This song represented a breakthrough in our musical relationship. Paul is a genius. He sees and hears everything he wants, and would give specific instructions to me and the drummer. But he didn’t know what he wanted the guitar part to be like on this song. I asked him to trust me and he did. After I came up with the parts, he was very pleased. For the rest of the record, Paul let me try things out before making any suggestions.”

The song has so many twists and turns that it is easy to ignore any individual instrument playing on it, but the guitar parts throughout the track are all wonderful when you pay attention to them. Engineer Dixon Van Winkle remembers the guitarist: “Everybody wanted Hugh on their sessions. He wasn’t the best reader in town, but the parts he came up with were fantastic. I’ve heard lots of great guitar players over the years, and I’d say Hugh was in the top five.” McCartney shared the opinion and invited the guitar player to his farm in Scotland to see if he might join his yet unnamed band, later to become Wings. After a few days McCracken declined, favoring the normal working habits of a studio musician to life on the rock n roll road. McCartney remembers: “He was such a New York guy that he didn’t really like to be away from America. New York is such a satisfying town, you can walk one block and get anything, whereas you can’t do that in the Mull of Kintyre.”

Uncle Albert single

Two years later in 1973 McCracken worked with Hall and Oates. In their early years, before their 1980s pop hits, the duo created a number of great albums. Their second LP, Abandoned Luncheonette, includes the single She’s Gone, becoming a hit for them only a few years later. Another track on the album that showcases McCracken’s talents is Lady Rain, sounding nothing like the hits Hall and Oates would produce in the following decade.

Also in 1973 McCracken participated in a much more successful song, Roberta Flack’s number one hit Killing Me Softly. The song was written after experiencing a live show by Don McLean. McCracken sets the tone of the song with a delicate strumming on acoustic guitar after the opening vocals. Acoustic bass here is by jazz legend Ron Carter, with whom McCracken had a long lasting working relationship.

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Two of Hugh McCracken’s best-known guitar parts were released in 1975, both of them now part of the 1970s pantheon of songs. The first is a short electric guitar solo that enters at 1:50 into the epic seven-minute All by Myself by Eric Carmen. You can’t go wrong with lifting a melody off Rachmaninoff, one of the most romantic composers in history.

The second song needs no introduction. In 1975 Paul Simon recorded his seminal album Still Crazy After All These Years with a host of excellent studio musicians. The number 1 hit on the album was 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, one of the most respected pop songs ever. The star on this song is drummer Steve Gadd, who played one of the most recognized drum patterns in popular music. Hugh McCracken plays electric guitar here and gets a short solo midway through the song.

Following the release of the album McCracken was part of the Paul Simon touring band alongside a dream band made of Richard Tee on keyboards, David Sanborn on sax, Toots Thielemans on harmonica and guitar and Steve Gadd on drums. Here is a short video with a rare footage of Hugh McCracken, highlighting his playing on that song.

Paul Simon - 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover

1977 was a career-changing year for Billy Joel with the release of his album The Stranger. Together with producer Phil Ramone and a stellar studio cast, Joel created one of the 1970s iconic albums. The record produced many songs that became mainstays on FM radio. The hits included Just the Way You Are, Movin’ Out, Only the Good Die Young, and finally the ballad She’s Always a Woman on which McCracken plays a beautiful acoustic guitar accompaniment.

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I will close the decade and end this review with a bang in 1980, a year that saw the release of two albums that benefitted greatly from the contributions of Hugh McCracken. The first is John Lennon’s return to form album Double Fantasy. McCracken worked with Lennon earlier in the 1970s. He was one of the acoustic guitar strummers on the 1971 hit Happy Xmas (War Is Over).

For his sadly last album, Lennon invited two top guitar players to the recording sessions. Aside from McCracken he hired Earl Slick, lead guitarist on Bowie’s Young Americans and Station to Station albums. The album produced many hits: (Just Like) Starting Over, Woman, Watching the Wheels and, Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy). The highlight on the album for me is I’m Losing You, a song Lennon wrote about the state of his marriage to Yoko Ono. The two guitarists are double tracking the accompaniment and solos on electric guitars. McCracken commented on that session: “That song was powerful. I remember John said ‘Here’s the next song’ .Then he played the riff from I’m Losing You and played the shit out of it. That riff just jumped out at us. It was simple and great, convincing and deliberate. It was easy for Earl and I to double that guitar part and do harmony on it.” Years later McCracken reflected on the tragic death of John Lennon: “Like Paul, he was extremely intelligent and aware of what he wanted in the studio. But you’d never find two more diametrically opposed personalities. I was working on Double Fantasy at the time of his death. How long did it take me to recover from that night? I still haven’t recovered.”

McCracken Double Fantasy

The Double Fantasy studio crew, with Hugh McCracken on the left

The second album features another of McCracken’s most recognizable guitar parts. 1980 saw the last release in that era by Steely Dan, a band that took pride in its professionalism in the studio and its ability to hire the best of the best. The band took a painstakingly long time to record the album, going through take after take until satisfied. Even excellent musicians such as Mark Knopfler ended up with parts that were left on the cutting room floor. The resulting album was Gaucho, yielding one of the band’s most successful hits, Hey Nineteen. Hugh McCracken’s electric guitar work here is hailed by many as an excellent example of a tasteful accompaniment that greatly enhances a song. Steely Dan’s Walter Becker was full of praise: “Hughie McCracken was great on that, absolutely outstanding. Doing what only Hughie McCracken does.” For a band so meticulous about the parts they asked their studio musicians to play, it was rare to give a musician that level of freedom: “The thing was the Hughie’s part was just so great, that it took care of a lot of business. You didn’t have to do a lot of other things that you might have done that would obscure it. It just sounded so great that you wanted that to be there. It functioned as a kind of lead and rhythm part at the same time. When you record something that sounds so great you want to feature it and not lose it.”

Hey Nineteen single

Hugh McCracken passed away in March 2013. Heartfelt obituaries soon followed by fellow musicians. His contemporary David Spinozza said: “People use the word virtuoso to mean someone with amazing facility on an instrument, but what Hugh McCracken had was a sense of economic playing that heightened any song he played on. In many situations his guitar part became part of the composition. All of us studio cats that had the opportunity to sit next to him on a session learned a lot.” Bassist Will Lee summarized it best: “Hugh was one of the gentlest and funniest souls to ever have graced our planet and our lives. He never had a negative word to say about anyone. He played the most elegant guitar parts that we ever heard, and sometimes didn’t hear — yes, they were that elegant.”

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Hearts and Bones cover front Hearts and Bones, by Paul Simon

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