I first heard of Ry Cooder when I was in high school; he was a session player on a couple of the better Stones albums (Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers) and on their jam session LP, Jamming With Edward. Then a friend gave me a tape of an album Ry did with Taj Mahal; they called themselves The Rising Sons.
As a geek who studied the liner notes on albums like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls, I kept seeing this name come up. When Rolling Stone magazine started coming out, I’d see his name all the time. I’d search out his work on the albums at the Record Bar in Naples; his stuff was there, if you knew where to look.
His first album, Ry Cooder on the old Reprise label, came out in 1970 and was astonishing. It wasn’t just the tasty playing on guitar and mandolin, it was the TYPE of songs he chose to do. Cooder was all over the place, with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of any kind of music, past and present. He could play it all and play it better than anyone else. He’s done so many great albums. Once, when my old VW van was broken into, they stole all my eight-track tapes except for Ry Cooder’s; I guess the villains weren’t familiar with him. I was glad that they left the best music I had behind!
Mr. Cooder is also responsible for what may well be the best soundtrack album ever; it’s of the music he did for the movie, The Long Riders. Here’s a taste:
Here’s a spectacular clip from a Record Plant show in 1974. When they start showing him playing, about 43 seconds in, watch his hands on Blind Blake’s Police Dog Blues:
As you continue watching, and I surely hope that you will, please pay particular attention to the little fills or transistions he throws in between the sung verses. Uncanny. He’s playing what appears to be an old O-sized Martin acoustic at first and then switches to a hardtail Strat with a bound ebony fingerboard.
I have a magazine-editor friend (hey, Charlie!) who used to jam with Ry occasionally. He told me that the strings on Cooder’s many guitars are set so high off the neck that no one else could play them. If that’s the case, then Ry Cooder must have the strongest pair of hands on the planet.
It seems odd to me that a person playing a high-action guitar can have such a delicate touch. If I had to choose one word to describe Mr. Cooder’s playing, it would be majestic. Listen to his version on that video (it begins at the 6:23 mark) of the 1929 tune by Blind Alfred Reed, How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live, and see if you don’t agree. That song’s on Cooder’s first album, too.
If you just have heard of Ry Cooder as the guy who put together the Buena Vista Social Club movie, you are in for a treat.