You may already have read my lengthy interview with legendary Wrecking Crew pianist Don Randi which was published here a while ago, – if not, click the link below to learn about Don’s time in the studio with Spector and read some of his great stories about the 60s LA studio scene.
The interview came about because I learned Don had a book coming out, the aptly titled ‘You Heard These Hands’ detailing his many musical adventures. As I recently got my own hands on Don’s book, I thought a review would make for a nice follow-up to the interesting interview Don was kind enough to do for Cue Castanets.
Review: You’ve Heard these Hands
****½ (4½ stars out of 6)
I was really looking forward to this book and sure enough, once I picked it up it was hard to put down again. ‘You’ve Heard these Hands’ turned out to be a very worthwhile read, although I have a few points of criticism which I’ll get to later. Overall though, this book is sure to interest not only any fan of the Wall of Sound but also the casual music fan leaning towards classic 60s and 70s music. Name a US hit artist or iconic single and there’s a good chance Don and his golden piano-playing hands have been involved. The guy’s résumé is nothing short of impressive which applies to the Wrecking Crew in general of course.
What’s a bit unusual about ‘You’ve Heard these Hands’ is the structure which at least for me took some getting used to. Normally, a ‘my life in music’-type book like this will organize the career-spanning narrative chronologically, typically starting out with a chapter about one’s family background, first forays into the music business etc. Not so with Don’s book. We’re talking page 146 and chapter 37(!) before we get to that! Leading up to this are a lot of chapters that are organized around specific producers Don has worked with, sessions he’s played on, clubs the various incarnations of the Don Randi trio has played etc – basically, the chapters are all over the place with significant jumps back and forth in time.
For some this lack of a chronology may irritate – it certainly took some getting used to when I read the book as I felt it made the storyline feel both disjointed and rambling. A bit like “oh, there’s this story, and we also have this story,… and we can’t forget this one” basically organizing the chapter outline of Don’s book as the various anecdotes popped up in quick succession. But then, as I read on, the format started to make more and more sense once I began to sense what kind of person Don is through reading his stories. I should add, by the way, that Don’s collaborator Karen ‘Nish’ Nishimura has put Don’s many stories into words in a very thoughtful and easy-flowing manner. She avoids the pitfalls of ghostwriting that can often be painfully obvious when reading collaborative music books like this.
The end result then, with the jumpy narrative and the warm, personal tone of the text, makes reading ‘You’ve Heard These Hands’ feel like the written equivalent to walking into Don’s LA-based jazz club the Baked Potato, grab a drink with Don at the bar and have him regale you with funny, interesting stories – the sequence of them changing by the day as he has so many to choose from. Keeping that picture in mind, this particular way of structuring the book, however intentional or not, turned out to make perfect sense to me despite my initial reservations.
I won’t get into great detail with Don’s actual stories in this review because I’d rather encourage you to seek out the book yourself and imagine that you take a trip down memory lane with him. Don offers a variety of interesting stories that give you an impression of the frantic pace and hustling nature of the record business during the 60s and 70s. Many of the stories are hilarious and told in a colorful way which gives the book an easygoing, down-to-earth vibe that seems to correspond well with Don’s personality.
One minor criticism though; for all the interesting anecdotes in the book, it’s a shame that Don and Karen didn’t include a bit more about Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound specifically. There are a few chapters on the topic in the book, and those certainly make for great reading, but the potential for insights could have been pushed much more.
Even though we’ve had many eye-witness accounts from other wrecking crew members and Philles artists about the various Spector sessions, it would have been nice to learn a bit more about how Don remembers the recording of this and that iconic song or other interesting tidbits. Then again, having participated in so many sessions, often not knowing even the song title or artist designated for the recording, it is understandable if Don’s recollections about all this may be a bit blurry. Luckily, I got him to elaborate on some of his Spector stories in my interview.
The Spector stories that are in the book are interesting though. Some of them because they seem to supplement or even challenge a few of the widespread Spector anecdotes; for instance, Don reveals that he actually befriended Spector several years before being called in for his first Spector session, ‘He’s a Rebel’, even forming a short-lived band with Spector, Steve Douglas and Mike Bermani. Don also claims that Sonny and Cher met while both worked Spector sessions and not, as has often been told, before Cher sang her first backgrounds at Gold Star. Elsewhere, Don tells about a late 70s session with Spector and other Wrecking Crew members that was supposed to result in four recorded songs for a mystery artist. That session sadly went nowhere because Jack Nitzsche, who was battling drug use at this point, hadn’t finished the charts for the songs as promised. If only he had, who knows what could have been?
All in all, ‘You’ve Heard these Hands’ needs to be on your bookshelf next to Hal Blaine’s book if you’re a fan of the 60s LA studio scene and beyond. Don’t expect that much info on Spector, because in all honesty it’s less in depth on that topic than I thought it would be. On the other hand, you get to learn a lot about less recognized producers and arrangers on the scene, many of whom haven’t really been afforded that much attention in music books.
****½ stars out of six for ‘You’ve Heard these Hands.’