Robyn Taylor Drake 1998 interview with legendary producer Barry Beckett (February 4, 1943 – June 10, 2009).

 

Session musician (keyboards), record producer, and co-founder of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, Barry Beckett played on innumerable classic records by everyone from Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Dire Straits. He produced albums by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dire Straits, Joe Cocker, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Phish, John Prine, McGuinn-Hillman, The Staple Singers, Phoebe Snow, Etta James, Candi Staton, T. Graham Brown, Lorrie Morgan, Eddy Raven, Delbert McClinton, Frankie Miller, Jerry Jeff Walker, Alabama, Hank Williams, Jr., Neal McCoy, Confederate Railroad, Tammy Graham, Sonia Dada, Ilse DeLange, Boz Scaggs and others.

Barry was a friend, mentor, and an imposing figure (linebacker physique). The first time I ever pitched (songs) to him, I was terrified. He always knew what he was looking for (in a song) and rarely did he keep a copy of a song I pitched, but he was always willing to listen. He told me the way he learned to recognize a hit was by listening to thousands and thousands of songs. We lost Barry way too soon but a little of his knowledge lives on in those of us he worked with.

 

INTERVIEW WITH LEGENDARY PRODUCER: BARRY BECKETT

 

Robyn Taylor-Drake: 

 

What do you look for in a song that would make you record it?

Barry Beckett:

First, I look at how the melody line will work with the lyric. If you’re dealing with lyrics that you want emphasis on, then the melody has to coincide and work with the lyric. The melody has to be structured to help with that emphasis, to exaggerate that emphasis. Like if you’re gonna write a lyric ‘I Love You,’ the primary word there is love, so you have to have melody that emphasizes the word.

 

RTD: 

 

 What are the most important elements of a song?

 

BB:

The first one is melody, next lyric, and how the lyric is worked into the melody–how they compliment each other and the story line. The lyric catches me first, but if I get bored in the melody, then it doesn’t work. A person gets bored first with the melody.

 

RTD: 

 

 What are the most important elements of a song?

 

BB:

The first one is melody, next lyric, and how the lyric is worked into the melody–how they compliment each other and the story line. The lyric catches me first, but if I get bored in the melody, then it doesn’t work. A person gets bored first with the melody.

 

RTD: 

So when a song starts breaking down, even though the lyric might be working for you, if the melody isn’t working, is that an automatic pass?

 

BB:

 

 

Yes.

 

RTD: 

 

What makes you hear the magic in the combination of an artist and a song when selecting a song?

 

BB:

You have to imagine how the artist is going to sing it. Imagine the sound of his voice when you hear the demo, which is sometimes hard to do, especially when you have a bad demo singer. The vocal sells the song. The better the vocal, then the easier it is to imagine the artist performing the song.

 

RTD: 

 

What do you like or dislike about songpluggers? What makes you choose a song from a songplugger?

 

BB:

The first thing a songplugger should recognize is that the song should stand on its own. No hype should surround the song. A producer is going to choose what he thinks is a hit song, period. He doesn’t think about catalogues, he only thinks about a hit. When a producer says, ‘No, I don’t like the song,’ then don’t try to push him, ’cause that’s not gonna work.

 

RTD: 

So when a plugger really believes in a song, believes it’s a hit, and a producer says no for a particular project, what’s the maximum amount of times to keep taking it back for other projects?

 

BB:

 

Three times.

 

RTD: 

 

What makes you determine whether to work with an artist or not?

 

BB:

 

Sound of the voice, the timbre, whether the artist can be genuine in the interpretation, and overall taste and intelligence.

 

RTD: 

What do you do when you find a great song and the artist isn’t really sure about it? Has this ever happened to you? (I’ve heard stories about this happening to you.) I think maybe you told this, Confederate Railroad didn’t hear ‘Queen Of Memphis,’ is that true?

 

BB:

 

Confederate didn’t hear it, Rick Blackburn didn’t hear it. They like it but they didn’t hear it as a hit.

 

RTD: 

 

So what about that song, in your mind, makes it a hit song?

BB:

 

It’s a great story song. They weren’t hearing the story.

 

RTD: 

 

I’m still not sure what that song’s about. Is it about a boat or a hooker?

BB:

(laughs) See? If it’s about a boat it’s not a hit. Nobody cares about a boat, a lot of people care about a prostitute. Confederate Railroad didn’t understand what the lyric was, didn’t hear what I heard, so I said, ‘Guys, I’ll guarantee you a hit.’

 

RTD: 

 

So if you had been wrong, then what?

 

BB:

 

I’d have f_____ up! (laughter) Don’t make a habit of committing to too many guarantees!

 

RTD: 

 

Did you have a gut feeling about that song?

 

BB:

 

Yeah, a big one.

 

RTD: 

 

So intuition does play into what you do?

 

BB:

Oh yeah, and I’ve had a lot of intuition about other songs that have been turned down by artists, then other people got them and had a hit.

 

RTD: 

 

How do you look at a song and know it’s a hit, I mean that’s really hard, when there are so many great songs to pick from?

 

BB:

Well, first you have to keep your mind on what the lyric is doing from top to bottom. How does it make you feel when you hear that lyric? And then you have to think if you can cut something that will compete with radio, sound-wise. If you don’t, you ain’t got a hit, simple as that. If you don’t think you can compete out there, then you can’t cut the song, it doesn’t matter what the song is. So it’s a matter of whether I think that I can compete. As far as whether or not I think the song is a hit, if I can hear what I’d do to it, if I can imagine in my head what it’s gonna sound like, then I can do it. And also, if I can manage to convince myself that I can cut a record good enough that will work for radio to the point that it will not interrupt the flow, if it will keep a DJ interested, you have to think about that. Demographically speaking, you have to think about the people who buy the record, how it effects wives, kids…what about it will make kids love it. Go back in your memory and think ‘Is this going to work or not?’ and once you say it’s going to work, stop at nothing to make it work, nothing.

 

RTD: 

 

Meaning…

 

BB:

Meaning, you go two or three days to cut the song instead of one day. You don’t accept a vocal if you don’t think it’s right. You don’t accept a guitar line if you don’t think it’s right. You do the absolute best you can to make it that hit record, once you’ve determined it’s a hit.

 

RTD: 

Say you’re in the studio, you know you’ve got the song, you know your artist can do it, but something is just not happening, the session players are somehow not translating. First of all, has that ever happened? What do you do?

 

BB:

Well, sure that’s happened and what you do is break it down. Instead of having six or seven people playing at one time, you break it down to two or three players. Break it down to the basics, acoustic guitar, bass and drums. If you can’t make those three things happen, then you’re screwed. If you don’t have an acoustic player who really knows how to play with the drummer, and the bass player as well, you can’t cut great records.

 

RTD: 

When you’re working with people, obviously there are certain people you want on that record as players to get that feel or sound that you want. Are there some players you wouldn’t put in a room together because they wouldn’t click?

 

BB:

Sure, but just about any rhythm section you put together in this town (Nashville) will have worked together, time and time again. Eddie Bayer (drummer) has worked with Michael Rhodes (bass player) and Owen Hale (drummer) has worked with Michael Rhodes. Lonnie Wilson (drummer) has worked with Glenn Wharf (bass) and Glenn has worked with Eddie Bayer. Everybody is so good, they’re all good. However, things sometimes effect a musician’s feel. You have to pay attention to what they’re listening to (in the headphones). If you can’t focus in on each individual instrument and pay attention to what they’re doing, then you can’t determine who’s causing the problem with the feel.

 

RTD: 

 

So how do you do that with six guys in the room?

 

BB:

Well, if you’ve got six guys in the room, you gotta know those guys’ style, backwards and forwards. There’s no better combination than Eddie Bayer and Michael Rhodes. When Don Potter was working with me on acoustic guitar a lot, there was no better combination to have than those three guys. The reason for that is they had worked so long together and done so much together on everyone else’s records. I listened to those records, but you really can’t tell from the records. You’ve got to work with the musicians. If it doesn’t work, then don’t hire them.


If a song is not happening, you break it down, the most important element being the drums. The most important part of the drums is not the bass drums, or the snare drum, it’s the hi hat because the hi hat is basically where you get your groove from, where you get the life of the song. Without the hi hat you wouldn’t have any life, you wouldn’t have a rhythm groove. When you think about it, you’ve got just 2 – 4 with the snare drum, and 1 – 3 with the bass drum. You don’t have anything in between, so it’s too straight. When you find a drummer that you love, and you find a great acoustic player that knows how to play with the hi hat, he’s gonna play rhythmically. He’s gonna go with the hi hat, and you’ve got to make sure when you cut the record that the acoustic player can hear the hi hat in the mix. There ain’t nothin’ worse than an acoustic player who doesn’t listen to a drummer.


So then you’ve got the bass. Michael Rhodes is probably the best in the country as far as I’m concerned. Michael knows exactly where Eddie likes to play in the beat, and if you have a great acoustic player that knows where Eddie likes to play…the drummer’s an important guy. That’s who you communicate with as far as the band is concerned, if you’re having trouble getting the right feel.
So I try to get this kind of combination, usually the rest of the musicians will fall into place. Don Potter, who I used to use a lot, got out of the business, so now I use Blue Miller (Gibson Miller Band) on acoustic guitar and the reason I like to use Blue is because he understands rock ‘n roll. There are plenty of players around here who play country, who are technically great, but they don’t understand rock ‘n roll. Blue understands that, and he plays the acoustic guitar like an electric guitar, and he’s beginning to understand the combination of Eddie and Michael, and, for me, it works because of his understanding of rock ‘n roll and the power that he plays with.

 

RTD: 

 

Do you always use an acoustic rhythm guitar, or are there instances where you don’t use an acoustic guitar at all?

 

BB:

 

Not in country.

 

RTD: 

 

What happens when you put a bluegrass player into the mix, does it come to a grinding halt or what?

 

BB:

Well, sometimes you’ve got great bluegrass players that understand rock ‘n roll, and when you get one who understands it, the phrasing of it, you put that into it, you’ve got one hell of a guitar player, then you can be ruthless.

COPYRIGHT 2015 TRIO PRODUCTIONS, INC. & SONGSCAPE MUSIC  LLC.

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