If you’ve turned on a radio at some point in the past 50 years, chances are good that you’ve heard Spooner Oldham. As an in-demand studio musician and Muscle Shoals alumnus, Oldham’s distinctive keyboard can be heard on many of the seminal rock recordings from the 1960s, including “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin’s “I’ve Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, and many others.
In the decades since, Oldham has worked with Bob Dylan, Etta James, Bob Seger, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, JJ Cale, and a host of other legends too numerous to mention. More recently, Oldham has toured extensively with Neil Young and the Drive-By Truckers, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.
If Oldham has an ego about his musical resume, he hides it well. The longtime Alabama resident speaks slowly, softly, and chooses his words with great care. He tends to play down his musical accomplishments, and is lavish with praise for the many great artists he’s worked with. In spite of a remarkable half-century spent at the nexus of modern rock, pop, and soul music, I came away from our conversation with the sense that Spooner at 72 is pretty much the same as he was at 22.
An accomplished songwriter in his own right, Spooner Oldham’s debut solo album is set to be re-released some 40 years following its premiere. One can understand why Pot Luck didn’t top the album charts upon its release: it’s a strange and daring album, with Oldham’s delicate, wavering tenor, and obscure lyrics laced over simple, often haunting arrangements. In many ways, the album makes more sense in the musical landscape of 2015 than it might have 40 years earlier, and puts one in mind of contemporary singer-songwriters such as Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Devendra Banhart.
PopMatters spoke to Spooner about his life in music from a recording studio in Birmingham, Alabama.
* * *
I’ve been listening to Pot Luck, [and] it’s a really interesting record; I haven’t heard anything quite like it. What’s it like for you to listen to that album over 40 years after you recorded it?
Well, you know, as with all the creative process, songwriting or piano playing or recording, does it hold up over time? How relevant is it? I think it sounds good, because we recorded on tape — like, analog, back in the mid-’70s. It still sounds good to me, and as far as the nature of the material, I don’t know. You just sorta grab something and go.
I think that was it: we had just put that studio together, we had [just] bought the building, so we had to build [the studio], and test microphones, and then the band was there. We’d all moved there just to be part of a studio band, the whole Muscle Shoals concept: get a band, get singers in to play with them.
And so I think that was it: like, “OK, we got a studio together, now somebody needs to do something, record something.” So I wrote a little bit, sang a little bit, played a little bit. So “you’re it” I think is what happened that day, more than anything. We needed something to do.
One side’s instrumental, one side’s vocal, and the vocal part was sort of unusual, to try that, because I had never done much of that, you know. It’s not something I planned for, or thought a lot about. “Oh, this is going to be the dedication of my life’s work: out front, solo artist.” You know, I never spent much time with that. I never got tired of being a studio musician — still do it, actually, and like it.
You never had the ambition to go out on your own, and try to become a big star, or anything like that?
None whatsoever. Still don’t. Not on my plate. You try to do a good job recording, and the thing is, if something should hit the airwaves and become a hit, well it’s not something I’m planning for, you know?
Back in the 1960s, when you were in New York or Muscle Shoals, as a white man, did you experience any sort of aggression or animosity from people for working with black musicians? Were there any times when people gave you any problems for that?
No, there was never any animosity or antagonism for working with black artists. Of course, you know, we would work in the studio and nobody knew we were there, basically. So nobody really chronicled this stuff much back then, we didn’t call the newspapers and say “Look, we’re doing this and that.” So it wasn’t a well-kept secret, but it was done without any attention to the process.
But no, we learned to love the people we worked with, and they’re all great artists. Still are. And that’s what it was about: the music.
You’ve worked with so many incredible artists. Is there anyone who stands out who impressed you the most in terms of raw talent?
Almost every one of ’em, big time. Still do. I hear the stuff we did 30, 40 years ago. You know, I could start naming names — Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, Neil Young, Etta James, Wilson Pickett. You know all of those people rock. Big time. So yeah, I was moved by it. Still am.
Looking back on all of the music you made, is there a certain album, or recording, or single you worked on that you’re proudest of? That you hold somewhat above the rest?
No, not really. Any one I hear on the radio, it still sounds good, and I’m going to recognize it because it must be a hit for them to be playing it this many years later. I just try to listen to the sound, and it still sounds good to me — and they mostly all do because they had good tape recorders back in those days — and they held up well. And the parts hold up well.
So I can hear “When A Man Loves A Woman” and spend five minutes out in the car, and it’s still just like yesterday. Still sounds good. “I’ve Never Loved A Man” by Aretha Franklin. And the songs I’ve written … I could go on and on, but no, there’s not one in particular that stands out above the rest. “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers“. Freddy Weller and I wrote that, and I like to hear that one. Makes me feel good.
I’m a huge Neil Young fan, so I have to ask you this question: what’s Neil like in the studio? Does he just let you do your thing, or does he know exactly what he wants and try to coax it out of you? What’s his process like?
He’s like most what I call “great artists.” He will write a song, play it on guitar, sing it and present it to you as he’s written it. And then I usually write a chord chart, and then the next time we’ll probably play it together. And in the process of playing it together you’re searching for your part, hopefully come up with something creative and productive.
So it’s the process that’s wonderful. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with him, and I think that’s the key to my success, really. Been blessed with some talent and creativity. So yes, it’s been a good process. Still is.