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February 14, 2014IM -
Born and raised in L.A., Ritenour began playing guitar at eight years old and credits his father for finding him the best teachers. “Back in those days you could find Joe Pass and Barney Kessel in the telephone book,” says Ritenour. “He would just call and say he had this talented son, and could he get a lesson.” By age 12, Ritenour had already decided that music would be his life’s work.
“Those were the days before drum machines and synthesizers, so they needed live music for everything,” he explains. “I was getting tremendous experience playing casual parties, weddings, and all sorts of places when I was 12 or 13 years old. I remember doing a gig on the Queen Mary, and the other musicians that night were Jeff Porcaro and David Paich [of Local 47], who became Toto. I used to do casuals with [Local 47 member] Ndugu Chancler and Patrice Rushen who was 14 at the time.”
Ritenour caught his first big break when he joined a band that was invited to the home-based recording studio of The Mamas & the Papas leader John Phillips. “Having a whole recording studio at home was seriously impressive back in those days,” says Ritenour. The band did some demos that didn’t go anywhere, but Ritenour, 16 at the time, was invited to stay a couple days and do a session with The Mamas & the Papas.
Then, at 18, he met famed jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó who turned him onto a gig playing with Lena Horne, which eventually led to him playing with Tony Bennett. Another jazz guitar great, John Pisano [of Local 47], recognized Ritenour’s talent, which led to work with Peggy Lee.
“Then, when I met my buddy Dave Grusin, the floodgates kind of opened for studio work,” says Ritenour of the lifelong friend, musician, and composer. Grusin was a Hollywood “golden boy” at the time, writing for a number of television series and major movies. By 1975, Ritenour was ready to launch his solo career with the album First Course.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, and talent had a lot to do with it, but today with the reinvention of the music industry, Ritenour asserts that even very talented young musicians face a more difficult path. “Everybody knows there’s less work, and there’s less money in the work,” he says. “Also, there’s tons more musicians than when I was growing up. Take Berklee College of Music, there’s at least 1,000 or more guitar students at just one college, all looking to be pros.”
And with the Internet, even successful musicians like Ritenour face shrinking dollars. “You can Google almost any song and you don’t even have to download it to listen,” he says. “There’s only fractions of pennies in it, if it’s legal, and most of the time it’s not legal.”
An AFM member for more than 40 years, Ritenour recalls that the AFM helped him early on, and he encourages young musicians to join. “I always appreciated the rehearsal rooms that were quite nice and inexpensive,” he says. “The insurance through the union was incredibly helpful, and the fact that they had guidelines for studio musicians.”
“I am definitely a pro-union guy,” he adds, explaining that he thinks a stronger union would help all struggling musicians. “If people get in the habit of working in the music business without that anchor, that foundation, and the support of one another, and the union itself, then the whole music industry is weakened. As soon as you break rank, and you’ve got thousands of musicians not in the union, doing work for less money, and letting the employer control the wages, it’s a big problem.”
But, according to Ritenour, not all the music industry changes have been negative. “The music business is more flexible than it used to be,” he says. “Young musicians, if they are creative, have a positive sense of who they are, and have a vision, can almost map their own destiny. What that means is, not only do you have to be a very good musician, you have to have a head on your shoulders for business.”
Ritenour credits one of his early teachers, Duke Miller, with coaching him about the business side of the industry. “He had come out of the studio business himself, and he would always tell me that it was important to understand the business as well as the music,” says Ritenour, who adds that being versatile is equally important these days.
“If you are a versatile musician there are so many different ways you can go. I can’t recommend enough that young musicians have to be versatile,” stresses Ritenour. “The reason I think my career has lasted since I was 12 years old—and I’m 60 now—is because of my depth and versatility.”
“My friend, Patrice Rushen says, ‘There’s no insurance program for being a musician.’ The deeper you are as a musician the further you can go. You have to keep up with the latest technology, music, styles; you don’t just keep jumping around, but adapt to keep yourself fresh and your audience fresh. I keep pushing myself to come up with new concepts for records.”
“I don’t think I was ever just a straight-up traditional jazz player, even in the early days of Los Angeles with Grusin, Rushen, Harvey Mason, Ernie Watts, and Abraham Laboriel [of Local 47], and Anthony Jackson [of Local 802 (New York City)], and that particular crew. We were in our 20s and playing the Baked Potato,” he says. “We all came from jazz backgrounds, but we were trying to cross over. We loved the R&B rhythms, pop melodies, jazz harmony, Brazilian rhythms, and the energy of rock guitar; so it ended up being a kind of fusion.”
Ritenour also stays fresh by connecting with the next generation of musicians. “In my case, my son has a lot to do with it,” he says, referring to Wes Ritenour, named for late great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, one of Lee’s biggest influences. The younger Ritenour is a drummer who, at age 19, has already made guest appearances on his father’s albums. “He’s so impassioned by music, like I was at his age.”
Inspired to reach out to the next generation, Ritenour launched his Six String Theory competition. “In 2010 I decided I wanted to celebrate the guitar—this instrument that has given me such a terrific life. Ever since I was a kid, I loved all styles of guitar: jazz, rock, classical, acoustic, blues, country. I decided it would be cool to do an album incorporating all these styles.”
Ritenour put together people like B.B. King of Local 71 (Memphis, TN), Vince Gill of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), Robert Cray of Local 689, Joe Bonamassa of Local 78 (Syracuse, NY), and George Benson and John Scofield of Local 802. “Then, I thought it would be cool to get some new talent on the album along with the so-called legends,” says Ritenour, of what has become an annual contest where hundreds of guitarists submit videos for a chance to win scholarships, recording opportunities, and other prizes.
“In the third year  I increased the competition to include piano, bass, and drums,” he says. “I was making my new album, Rhythm Sessions, which is starring different all-star rhythm sections that I’ve had a chance to work with through the years. It allowed me to use my versatility. For instance, I put together a track with Peter Erskine, Larry Goldings, and Alan Pasqua [of Local 47] and went for a straight ahead jazz approach; I put together a funk track with Patrice Rushen, Melvin Davis [of Local 47], Marcus Miller [of Local 802], and some other very funky folks. Then, I thought again, what a cool thing if we could let the winners of the piano, bass, and drum competitions perform on the record.”
“The mentoring part is important for me, and I really enjoy this model,” he adds. “There’s more than 30 legendary players on the album, and at the same time we have the winners of the competition.”
Open to ages 16 and up, Ritenour has been pleasantly surprised at the competition’s popularity. People visited the website from 150 different countries this year, and almost 500 guitar players, and about 300 rhythm players, entered by video from 52 countries.
Although he claims to have lost count, Rhythm Sessions, launched in September, marks around 45 albums for Ritenour. “I’m just as passionate about making albums, touring, and playing in front of people as I was in my 20s,” he says.
“Since I came out of the studio world years ago I was not a traveler, but in recent years I’ve enjoyed traveling around the world,” says Ritenour of his career that continues to evolve. “I’ve played extensively in Japan, Asia, Europe, and South Africa, and all over the states. I love meeting people and I’m thrilled that they know my music.”