Cooder is a master of the slide guitar, both acoustic and the electric. He has integrated many rock elements into his blues- and folk-based playing, and his rhythm playing is as distinct as his soloing. Cooder possesses immaculate feel, timing, and pitch, a wonderful sense of melody, and an amazing capacity to play the right notes at the right time.
Cooder has a truly unique, instantly recognizable sound, and throughout his career, his guitar skills have been in huge demand. He was a guest performer on recordings by countless top artists, and he wrote the soundtracks for seventeen movies.
Cooder also made pioneering and influential albums with musicians from India, Africa, Cuba, Hawaii, and Ireland. Most of all, he created a stunning oeuvre of 17 highly-regarded solo albums, that taken together can match that of any great A-list artist. For all these reasons, Cooder is sometimes simply called “an American genius.”
Ryland Peter Cooder was born on March 15, 1947, in Santa Monica, Los Angeles. An accident when he was only three years old shaped much of Cooder’s life. He accidentally stuck a knife in his left eye while trying to fix a toy car, and ended up with a glass eye.
One night after the accident, when he was lying in his bed with the room darkened, a family friend entered and laid something on the boy’s stomach. When the boy asked what it was, the friend replied, “it’s a guitar.” Playing the guitar became one of his main ways for the one-eyed young boy of expressing himself.
In part inspired by his folk-singer dad, the young Cooder practiced Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs, and he started playing the blues, picking up slide and finger-picking techniques from recordings by legendary players like Elmore James, Josh White, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, Lighting’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, and many others.
By 1965, at the age of 17, Cooder had become a sought-after local guitarist. In that year he formed a group called Rising Sons. They signed to Columbia records, and recorded one album, which was not released until 1992, called Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.
In 1967, Cooder featured captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s debut album, Safe as Milk (1967), one notable contribution being his arrangement of the tune “Grown So Ugly.” As part of his session career around this time, Cooder played on recordings by Neil Young, The Monkeys, and, most famously, The Rolling Stones.
He played mandolin on the Stones’ cover of the Robert Johnson’s tune “Love In Vain,” which appeared on Let It Bleed(1969). Cooder is also rumored to be the originator of the riff for the single “Honky Tonk Women,” though he was never credited. Cooder again worked with the Stones in 1971, on Sticky Fingers, playing slide guitar on “Sister Morphine.”
TOUR DE FORCE
In 1970, Cooder signed to Warner’s Reprise label as a solo artist. His first album, produced by Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, is simply called Ry Cooder and was released by the end of the year.
The album is a blueprint for much of Cooder’s solo career. It contains mostly older blues, folk, rock & roll and pop songs by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Blind Blake and Blind Willie Johnson, played by an eclectic collection of session musicians.
Ry Cooder’s second album, Into The Purple Valley, released in 1972, was built on similar principles. The focus was this time on protest songs from the 1930s Dust Bowl era, set in unusual arrangements based on blues, calypso, folk, gospel, rock and country. The album was called a ‘tour de force,’ and his playing “phenomenal.”
Cooder’s third solo album, Boomer’s Story (1972) was called an “archeological dig” through American folk and blues music, and saw him work for the first time with drummer Jim Keltner, who became one of America’s top session drummers, and continued playing with Cooder for decades.
Paradise and Lunch (1974) combines forgotten songs from the past with contemporary material by the likes of Bobby Womack and Burt Bacharach. It also features horn and string arrangements, and for the first time extensive background vocals, which became a defining feature of Cooder’s solo music.
Chicken Skin Music, released in 1976, saw Cooder blend Tex-Mex and Hawaiian music with Latin, blues, folk, jazz, and gospel. It marks the first time he played with accordionist Flaco Jimenez. Show Time (1977) was Cooder’s first live album, recorded at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco as part of the tour supporting Chicken Skin Music.
Jazz, released in 1978, is arguably Cooder’s most ambitious and strangest album, as he set out to recreate jazz music from the early 20th century, with Dixieland, ragtime, vaudeville, and Tin Pan Alley elements. Cooder plays masterful acoustic guitar throughout the arguably flawed, but very enjoyable album.
CHANGE OF DIRECTION
By this stage some storm clouds were gathering over Cooder’s career.
Jazz was received with reservations by critics, and although he was at the peak of his powers as a guitarist, singer, and producer, his records still did not sell particular well.
A change of direction was needed, and this arrived with Bop Till You Drop, released in 1979. It’s an almost entirely electric affair, with rhythm and blues, soul, and rock ‘n roll songs from the 1950s and 1960s. It sounded more current and suitable for mass consumption, with covers of songs made famous by the likes of Elvis Presley and Ike & Tina Turner.
The album also was the first-ever major label release recorded to digital, a 3M multitrack machine, at Warner Brothers Recording Studios, in North Hollywood. Despite of, or perhaps because of, Cooder trying to be more accessible, Bop Till You Drop contains some of his greatest work, from his cover of Presley’s “Little Sister” to the gorgeous, lilting guitars in the instrumental “I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine.”
Most outstanding is a prize-winner in the great-titles category, “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Will Make Me Poor)”, which apparently was written by an unknown Memphis taxi driver who Cooder had met by accident. It became one of the defining songs of Cooder’s solo career.
Bop Till You Drop indeed turned out to be more commercially successful, and “Little Sister” was a minor hit. Cooder redid the entire exercise with his next album, Borderline (1980), which again mined 1950s and 60s rhythm and blues and rock ‘n roll territory, with some reggae and Tex-Mex influences thrown in. Borderline also saw him work with guitarist and singer John Hiatt for the first time.
Cooder recorded two more solo albums as a leader during the 1980s, The Slide Area (1982), on which he tried his hand at writing more of the songs, and Get Rhythm (1987). The latter album contains an amazing version of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” and the masterful, “Across The Borderline,” which contains one of Cooder’s most soaring and evocative slide guitar solos.
As time went on, the pressure of his artist-frontman-guitar-hero role, and the difficulties of making a living from it, became too much. After Get Rhythm, Cooder would not release a solo album for eighteen years.
Years later Cooder explained, “I gave up on pop music. I quit. I absolutely threw in the towel. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be what they need you to be. The record thing drove me insane — I couldn’t figure it out. I finally had to stop making these damn solo records because they just didn’t happen.”
For most of the eighties, nineties and 00s, Cooder’s career therefore consisted of a zigzag course in which he tried his hand at anything but being the front-man and guitar hero. Part of his focus was on creating soundtracks for movies, which he said made him far more money.
His soundtrack career had started in 1970 with three tracks for the movie Performance, which starred Mick Jagger. His next ventures were soundtracks for four movies by director Walter Hill, The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort(1981), The Border (1982), Streets of Fire (1984), His soundtrack for The Long Riders is regarded as a masterpiece that can be listened to by itself, and stands up to his best solo work.
In 1985, Cooder finally achieved household-name fame with his haunting score for Wim Wenders’ road movie Paris, Texas. The film, and the soundtrack, were huge critical and commercial successes.
Cooder’s most striking next movie project was his score for Walter Hill’s Crossroads (1986), with the title and significant elements of the movie inspired by the story of Robert Johnson.
Over the next years Cooder wrote the soundtrack to another eight movies, most notably Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) and Wim Wender’s The End Of Violence (1997). There also were guest performances on albums by Van Morrison (Into The Music, 1979), Eric Clapton (Money and Cigarettes, 1983), John Hiatt (Bring the Family, 1987), John Lee Hooker (Mr Lucky, 1991), Aaron Neville (Warm Your Heart, 1991), and more.
1988 brought Cooder his first Grammy Award, ironically not for his stellar solo career, but in the Best Recording for Children category, for his music accompanying the storybook classic Pecos Bill, narrated by Robin Williams.
Cooder did briefly try to resurrect his guitar-slinger career with the super-group Little Village in 1992, together with John Hiatt, bassist Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. However, their self-titled debut album was not well-received and the project folded.
ON THE MAP
For the most part, Cooder’s nineties were taken up with three major collaborative projects, with each more influential and high-profile than the former.
The first was A Meeting By The River, released in 1993, which features Cooder on acoustic guitar and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt playing a Mohan Veena, an archtop Hawaiian guitar modified for use in Indian music, with 20 strings. The album was exceptionally well received and earned Cooder and Bhatt Grammy Awards for Best World Music Album. It is still regarded as a world-music classic.
A year later, Cooder collaborated with the legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, on Talking Timbuktu. The album is full of rolling rhythms and intricate guitar work, informed by American folk and blues and Toure’s Malian music. It again was a critical and commercial success, and again earned Cooder a Grammy for Best World Music Album.
Cooder also collaborated extensively with fellow guitarist David Lindley, and in 1995 with The Chieftains on their album The Long Black Veil. But his most attention-grabbing and earth-moving project was Buena Vista Social Club (1997), which put Cuban music on the world map.
It became a major hit, selling over 8 million copies worldwide, and received the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album. The musicians involved, including Cooder, went on a short world tour in 1998, which was immortalized by Wim Wenders in a movie that was also called Buena Vista Social Club.
Cooder’s collaborations after these three major successes were far lower in profile. Among them was Mambu Sinuendo (2003) with Cuban guitarist Manuel Galbán, which earned him yet another Grammy Award, for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Cooder also produced several records for Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who had found fame through Buena Vista Social Club. One of them, Buenos Hermanos (2003), earned Cooder his sixth Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album.
Finally, in 2005, Cooder took the solo album plunge again, with Chavez Ravine. It was a concept album about a Mexican-American Los Angeles neighbourhood that was destroyed after shady developer deals. Musically it harks back to his earlier solo albums, with a mixture of Mexican, Cuban, Latin, and traditional American influences.
Chavez Ravine was well-received, and Cooder released another four solo albums, My Name Is Buddy (2007), I, Flathead(2008), Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (2011), and Election Special (2012). These four albums cover social-political topics with most or all tracks written by Cooder, and the music is mostly in a faux folk style.
Cooder fans were happily surprised when the great man went on tour again playing some of his classic solo album songs from the seventies and eighties. This was documented on a live album credited to Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos, called Live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco Aug 31-Sept 1 2011.
Cooder’s most recent solo album, The Prodigal Son (2018) again contains blues, country, and folk tunes from the earlier part of the 20th century, and contains more featured guitar playing than Cooder’s other 21st century solo albums.
Whether Cooder’s career has come full circle, or whether he has more pioneering projects in him, remains to be seen. But with seventeen solo albums, more than 20 collaborative albums, seventeen soundtrack albums, and countless guest performances on record, there is an extraordinary amount of music to explore for any of you who are not that familiar with his work…
© 2022, Paul Tingen
Watch the video below to learn more about the incredible Ry Cooder!