Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Ryland Peter Cooder, 15 March 1947, Los Angeles CA) Guitarist; singer, leader; activist curator of the world's music. He played guitar at age four, in his teens with Jackie DeShannon as a duo performing locally, later formed the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Jesse Davis c.1966 (an album was finally issued '92). His friendship with producer/arranger Jack Nitszche led to prolific session work: he played on LPs by Captain Beefheart (Safe As Milk), Phil Ochs, Randy Newman; also Rolling Stones records Let It Bleed '69, chilling 'Sister Morphine' from Sticky Fingers '71; in soundtrack of Mick Jagger film Performance '70, on Nicky Hopkins LP Jamming With Edward '72 (also with the Stones).

His own debut was Ry Cooder '70; then Into The Purple Valley '72 began his exploration of Americana with songs about the Great Depression by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Sleepy John Estes. A folk/blues set Boomer's Story '72 was about wanderers, with plenty of fine guitar playing; Paradise And Lunch '74 in a rhythm & blues direction was his first commercial success, with Jim Keltner on drums, Red Callender, Plas Johnson; Oscar Brashear (b 18 August 1944, Chicago) on cornet; Bobby King among others on background vocals; a duet with Earl Hines on 'Ditty Wah Ditty'. Influenced by unusual tunings used by Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, Hawaiian guitarist Gabby Pahinui, then by Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez, the next LP was Chicken Skin Music '76, including covers of 'He'll Have To Go' and 'Goodnight Irene'. Showtime '77 was a live set. Jazz '77 is Cooder's affectionate impression of that genre, Callender, Hines, Brashear in the cast; songs by Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton and others, plus traditional songs arranged by Spence: Cooder says the half-instrumental LP is his least favourite; it was trouble to make and not a good seller, but remains a gorgeous and underrated album. Bop Till You Drop '79 was the first digitally recorded rock album, including fine covers of Elvis Presley's 'Little Sister', Arthur Alexander's 'Go Home, Girl' and others; Chaka Khan and King were among the backing singers, with King singing lead on 'I Can't Win'. He began touring with John Hiatt and Keltner, the superb backing vocal team of King and Willie Greene and other first-class sidemen; they are all on Borderline '80: covers of Wilson Pickett's '634-5789', Billy Emerson's '(Every Woman I Know Is) Crazy 'Bout An Automobile', Hiatt's 'The Way We Make A Broken Heart', Cooder's own 'Borderline', much else; The Slide Area '82 included the rare Bob Dylan song 'I Need A Woman', Curtis Mayfield's 'Gypsy Woman', Cooder's 'Mama, Don't Treat Your Daughter Mean', Cooder/Keltner's 'UFO Has Landed In The Ghetto' and 'I'm Drinking Again'.

Cooder played on T-Bone Burnett's album Proof Through The Night, Eric Clapton's Money And Cigarettes, both '83; then turned to atmospheric film work, his friendship with director Walter Hill leading to composing and performing music for his The Long Riders '80, Southern Comfort '81, Streets Of Fire '84, Brewster's Millions '85, Crossroads '86, Johnny Handsome '89; also Tony Richardson's The Border '81, Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas '84 and Louis Malle's Alamo Bay '85 (with contributions from Hiatt, Van Dyke Parks, Los Lobos); also Blue City '86, directed by his friend Michelle Manning. His playing and music also featured in Candy '68, Blue Collar '78 (wrote 'Hard-Workin' Man' for Beefheart), Goin' South '78 (title song over closing credits).

His albums didn't get expensive promotion because they didn't fit in pigeonholes, while the whole point was that they took in everything; he supported lesser acts in concert, with a loyal cult following and ecstatic critical praise, until his own success began to come in the late '70s: a master of bottleneck guitar with a deep understanding of popular music, seen now as a giant, he points out that in today's record business he would not get the contract he got in 1970 as an untried artist, first on Reprise, then on parent WB. Why Don't You Try Me Tonight '86 was a belated compilation; Get Rhythm '87 was a new slice of Americana, including the old Johnny Cash B-side, other songs by Chuck Berry, Otis Blackwell etc served up Cooder style, the cast including Parks on keyboards, Buell Niedlinger on acoustic bass, Keltner, King, Greene, Flaco, etc.

Little Village '91 was a co-op outfit with Hiatt, Keltner and Nick Lowe, who had first come together on Hiatt's Bring The Family '87; Cooder said that he couldn't plan a trip to the grocery store, let alone a career, then added, 'I've never been in a band before.' Despite critical affection there was only one Little Village album (no. 66 in the Billboard album chart). Then suddenly there were five albums in 15 months beginning early '93: the electro-acoustics on black gangster movie soundtrack Trespass sounded improvised, while A Meeting By The River was a duet with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who plays his own modified guitar design called a mohan veena; made in six hours from their first meeting, the set won a Grammy '94 for best World Music album. A duet with Terry Evans, Blues For Thought, was the closest thing to R&B he'd done for years, with Keltner, Spooner Oldham and others on Pointblank/Charisma. Geronimo was another Walter Hill soundtrack, and Talking Timbuktu on World Circuit with West African bluesman Ali Farka Touré saw Cooder playing and producing but not singing, another successful collaboration including Keltner and bassist John Patitucci, made in three days. Music By Ry Cooder '95 compiled themes from film music in another long-overdue compilation.

Robert Sandall described him as 'one of the best improvising musicians and most brilliant team players in the history of rock', but he has to be allowed to let it happen fortuitously: one of Cooder's most famous contributions, the riff to the Stones' 'Honky Tonk Women', began as a throwaway quote from a John Lee Hooker tune.

Continuing his voyage of discovery, Cooder landed in Cuba in March 1996, where he made Buena Vista Social Club in Havana with guitarist and vocalist Compay Segundo (b Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz, 18 November 1907, Siboney; d 13 July 2003) and pianist Rubén Gonzáles (b 1919, Santa Clara; d 8 December 2003); Segundo was also a singer and a clarinettist and both were legendary Cuban session players and composers, but had almost been forgotten: Gonzáles did not even have a piano in his home. Manuel 'Puntillita' Liceal and Omara Portuondo, the only woman on the album, each had one lead vocal; the rest of the lead vocals were shared by Compay, guitarist Eliades Ochoa and Ibrahim Ferrer (d 6 August 2005, aged 78). Cooder guested on one track of A Toda Cuba Le Gusta by the 13-piece Afro-Cuban All-Stars ('four generations of Cuba's finest musicians') and encouraged Gonzáles to make Introducing Rubén Gonzáles, over 50 years after he first recorded with bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez (all on Nick Gold's innovative label, World Circuit). Cooder described the descarga ('discharge'; jam session) on Buena Vista as 'the greatest musical experience of my life'. The band also included tres player Juan de Marcos González (also music director and co-producer with Nick Gold), and classically-trained bassist Orlando 'Cachaíto' López (b 2 February 1933, Havana; d 9 February 2009), son of Orestes López and nephew of Israel 'Cachao' López (see his entry). (Orlando López's debut album, Cachaito, won a BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music in 2002.) Buena Vista was one of the most beautiful albums of the decade and restarted their careers; they toured the world to acclaim in their final years and made several more albums under their individual names; their Carnegie Hall concert in 1998 was a one-time landmark in 20th-century music, released on a two-CD set ten years later (the sound not very good but worth the trouble). Scenes from the concert were included in Wim Wenders' documentary film Buena Vista Social Club '99, the monologues with the Cuban All-Stars drenched in nolstagia; the beautiful film was also a hit. 

Manuel Galbán (d 7 July 2011 aged 80) was a Cuban guitarist who wasn't rediscovered in time for the Buena Vista breakthrough, but he played on Ibrahim Ferrer's solo album; Mambo Sinuendo 2003 was a duet album by Cooder and Galbán.

Cooder's next album was Chávez Ravine 2005 on Nonesuch, a song cycle about a lost Latino community, whose Los Angeles neighbourhood was demolished to make way for Dodger Stadium in the 1950s. It was described as his 'East Side Story, a barrio musical', by Augustin Gurza in the L.A. Times. With strains of R&B, rock, Afro-Cuban music, bebop and Latin dances, it was another unique mixture of Americana, and turned out to be the first in a California trilogy: My Name Is Buddy 2007 was about Buddy Red Cat in the era of red-baiting and union-bashing; I, Flathead ('The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns') 2008 was about a musician called Kash Buk (a deluxe limited edition included a copy of Cooder's novella, described as a cross between John Steinbeck and Thomas Pynchon, with a little Popular Mechanics thrown in). The usual suspects took part: Keltner, Flaco, his son Joachim Cooder. The Ry Cooder Anthology: The UFO Has Landed 2008 was a well-chosen (by Joachim) selection of 32 tracks on Rhino.