Ry Cooder - Biography
Since his arrival as a top blues-rock guitarist in the ‘60s, Ry Cooder has established himself as an eclectic talent who excels in a breadth of musical activities. As a solo artist, he has recorded a deep catalog of rootsy rock albums featuring his stinging guitar playing, engagingly furry singing, and forays into a panoply of styles – blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, jazz, Tex-Mex, and Latin and Hawaiian music. His command of atmosphere and his adaptability have led to a fruitful side career writing and producing Hollywood soundtracks. His pioneering work in world music culminated in the late ‘90s with his stint as a key architect of the bestselling Cuban aggregation Buena Vista Social Club.
Ryland Peter Cooder was born March 15, 1947, in Los Angeles. As a youth he haunted McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, and he learned the rudiments of guitar from bluesman-turned-evangelist Rev. Gary Davis, one of the top performers of the ‘60s folk revival. (Cooder would also cite gospel-blues artist Blind Willie Johnson and the eccentric Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence as key influences.) By the time he was in his teens he was visible on the LA pop scene: He was hired by Ed Pearl, owner of the important local folk club the Ash Grove, to back pop/folk singer Jackie DeShannon.
By 1965 Cooder had founded the blues-rock group The Rising Sons with New York-bred singer-guitarist Taj Mahal; drummer Ed Cassidy, later of Spirit, was an early but unrecorded member. Signed to Columbia Records, the band cut an album with Terry Melcher, son of pop singer Doris Day and producer of many early Byrds hits. However, after a lone single was released, the album was shelved, and the group disbanded. (The album was finally released on CD in 1993.)
The discouraged Cooder enrolled in Reed College in Oregon, but during a break between semesters he was successfully enlisted as the new lead guitarist for Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band by former Rising Sons drummer Gary Marker. Beefheart, then developing his own embryonic style of mutant blues, had long coveted the young musician. Cooder’s slide work was featured on Beefheart’s debut LP Safe As Milk (1967). But his tenure with the band was not long; he exited suddenly in June 1967, on the eve of a scheduled appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, after a disastrous set at another Northern California festival.
In the late ‘60s, Cooder became the go-to player for acts seeking inventive slide guitar work. He famously sat in with The Rolling Stones on session for Let It Bleed (1969), and for a time there was talk that he would be enlisted as Brian Jones’ replacement in the group. (Mick Taylor ultimately got the call.) He also made his soundtrack debut in a Stones-related capacity, doing the bottleneck work on co-directors Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, which starred Mick Jagger.
Cooder’s work on the Warner Bros.-distributed soundtrack for the film led to session jobs with such Warner acts as Randy Newman and Little Feat, and ultimately to a contract with the company’s Reprise imprint. Released in 1970, his self-titled debut set the tone for his early albums, with smartly played renditions of classic American numbers by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Blind Alfred Reed, Sleepy John Estes, and Blind Willie Johnson, among others. Into the Purple Valley (1972), co-produced by Memphis’ Jim Dickinson, continued in the same vein, covering Guthrie, The Drifters, and Johnny Cash.
Paradise and Lunch (1974) introduced Cooder’s penchant for offbeat guests: Among the players was jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, a member of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five in the ‘20s. The album also broadened his sound with the emphatic use of doo-wop-styled vocals.
Chicken Skin Music (1976) represented another significant development in Cooder’s sonic palette. While the repertoire did not differ significantly, the approach to the material did: The guitarist brought on such unlikely collaborators as Tex-Mex conjunto accordionist Flaco Jimenez and Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui. Jimenez made further stirring contributions to Cooder’s live album Show Time (1977).
Jazz (1978) found Cooder moving a little too far afield stylistically: His versions of jazz and minstrel pieces by Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bert Williams, among others, failed to truly connect with the material, and the musician has himself disowned the record. He returned to more familiar and satisfying terrain with Bop Till You Drop (1979), a highly satisfying collection, and an historic one as well – it was the first digitally recorded pop music album to see release.
Cooder continued to produce himself through the 1980s, making such solidly entertaining albums as Borderline (1980), The Slide Area (1982), and Get Rhythm (1987). However, beginning with his duty on director Walter Hill’s outlaw saga The Long Riders in 1980, he was increasingly consumed with the production of music for film soundtracks. His evocative score for Wim Wenders’ 1985 drama Paris, Texas is generally considered his finest movie work. While Hill’s hokey 1986 blues feature Crossroads is catastrophically bad, its Cooder-produced score does include appearances by such authentic latter-day bluesmen as Frank Frost. (A compilation of Cooder’s work for movies, Music By Ry Cooder, was issued in 1995.)
In 1987, Cooder made a sideman appearance that resulted in a deserving (albeit less exciting) group effort five years later. He performed lead guitar chores on singer-songwriter John Hiatt’s breakthrough album Bring the Family, in the company of bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner. This all-star unit would not tour until 1992, when they regrouped as Little Village, releasing an uneven Reprise album that ironically out-charted Hiatt’s original solo effort.
Cooder won the first of his half-dozen Grammy Awards for the children’s album Pecos Bill (1988), a collaboration with comedian Robin Williams. His next two Grammys reflected the principal musical path his career took throughout the ‘90s.
In 1993, the small independent label Water Lily Acoustics released Meeting By the River, a collaboration between Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a master of the Indian stringed instrument the vina. The following year, Cooder partnered with Ali Farka Touré, the Malian guitarist and disciple of American bluesman John Lee Hooker, for Talking Timbuktu. Both releases won the Grammy for best world music album. But a bigger breakthrough was in the offing.
In 1996, World Circuit Records, the label that had released the Cooder-Touré collection, funded a session at Havana’s historic EGREM Studio, with Cooder producing; the plan was to unite Cuban and Malian musicians in another cross-cultural world music session. However, the Africans failed to secure work visas. Rather than abandon the session, Cooder and Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González assembled a group of old-school performers – septuagenarians, octogenarians, and even one nonagenarian -- for an album of music performed in the now-vanished Cuban styles of the ‘40s and ’50s. Some of the musicians, like vocalist Compay Segundo and piano virtuoso Rubén Gonzalez, had not played in decades; others, like bolero singer Ibrahim Ferrer, had never recorded at all.
The resultant album, Buena Vista Social Club (named after a long-forgotten Havana venue), created an international sensation. It sold more than a million copies in the US and won a Grammy as best tropical Latin album. Director Wim Wenders’ documentary received an Academy Award nomination. (An album of music from the emotional 1998 Carnegie Hall concert featured in Wenders’ film was belatedly released in 2008.) A series of Buena Vista-branded albums followed. Ferrer’s set Buenos Hermanos (2003) won another Grammy for Cooder in 2004; the same year, Mambo Sinuendo (2003), Cooder’s collaboration with Manuel Galban, guitarist for the ‘60s Cuban doo-wop group Los Zafiros, was named best pop instrumental album.
In 2005, native Angeleno Cooder released the first of three albums he called his “LA Trilogy.” Atypically, these sets featured original material, rather than the cover songs that had been Cooder’s career-long bread and butter. Inspired by a collection of 50-year-old photographs, Chavez Ravine detailed the destruction of the titular Latino neighborhood to make way for Dodger Stadium. The album featured appearances by such local Hispanic stars as singer Lalo Guerrero, bandleader Don Tosti, Thee Midniters’ vocalist Little Willie G., and El Chicano’s Ersi Arvizu. Less satisfying were its two follow-ups, My Name is Buddy (2007), a shaggy-dog story about a hobo cat, and I, Flathead (2008), a song cycle loosely based in Southern California’s drag-racing culture.
In late 2008, Rhino released The Ry Cooder Anthology: The UFO Has Landed, a two-disc retrospective worth owning for Cooder’s typically eccentric liner-note reflections on his own work.