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August 31, 2020Jason Emerson - Managing Editor, International Musician
With more than 2,600 albums under his belt as a session musician—as well as decades on tour with some of the biggest artists in the music industry and musical contributions to countless Hollywood films and major television shows—bassist Leland “Lee” Sklar has guided his career by a simple tenet: “Be cognizant of the song.”
“First and foremost, from my career standpoint, the song has always meant everything to me,” says Sklar, a 50-year member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA). “It really emanates from the studio and listening to a song that’s presented to you, and really thinking about, ‘What does the song need?’ Not about, ‘How can I shine on this?’ ‘How can I impose myself on this?’ I think it’s imperative to let the song guide you into what you need to do on it.”
That belief has directed Sklar’s career from his early days with James Taylor to his legendary status as one of the most recorded and most sought-after bassists in the LA studio scene. And at age 73, Sklar is still going strong.
Sklar is renowned for his bass playing, but his musicianship actually started on piano—when, as a child, his parents loved watching the old Liberace television show. Sklar had an affinity for the keys, but once he got to junior high school, he found the school band had too many piano players. His teacher suggested he try the bass and pulled out a blonde upright out of the back room. “I plunked one note, felt that vibration, and man I was sold,” Sklar says. A few years later, another game-changing moment arrived when Sklar got an electric Melody bass and a St. George amp—and entered the electric world. “After that, I started joining bands left and right and sitting home and playing to records,” he says—an ironically prescient circumstance, given where his career went and where it is today in the world of a pandemic shutdown. But more on that later.
Sklar, like so many teenagers then and since, loved playing bass, but he never expected to find a career in music. In college at California State University, Northridge, he was an art/science major, expecting to go into medical or technical illustration. But then, during his fifth year of college, his life changed in one day, he says. “I met James Taylor. I got offered one gig, and that was in 1970. And basically, I’m still on that gig.”
Sklar’s first real studio experience, he says, was with Taylor, a member of Local 802 (New York City), for Taylor’s third studio album, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Since then, Sklar’s career moved ever upward. As part of the now-legendary studio ensemble called The Section (which included Local 47 members Russ Kunkel and Craig Doerge), Sklar’s playing has been heard on hits by artists such as Linda Ronstadt (Local 47), Randy Newman (Local 47), Dolly Parton (Local 257), Neil Diamond (Local 47), and George Strait (Local 433), to name only a few. Sklar has also done vast amounts of session work for television and film, playing on TV shows such as Hill Street Blues, Knight Rider, and Simon and Simon, and on movies such as Forrest Gump, Ghost, and Legally Blonde.
One of the reasons Sklar has been an active musician for 50 years and participated in so many albums and recordings is because he is a professional, and he treats his vocation that way. “The studio process is a profession. It may be called ‘playing,’ but it’s a profession that’s as serious as any profession out there,” he says. For example, he continues, if your downbeat is at 10 a.m. for a session, don’t pull into the parking lot at 10 a.m. Arrive early, get your gear tuned and in place, check out the charts and make sure there are no surprises and, if you need to, take an extra few minutes to wrap your head around the songs and be ready to play at 10 a.m. “That’s what you were called for,” he says. “My job is me, and I treat it as professionally as I can. When you finish a track and people are going to listen to the playback, don’t sit there and check your phone messages; go into the control room and listen. And if you hear things that could contribute to make it a better song, throw it out there. Don’t sit mute in the back of the room like wallpaper.”
Sklar says he’s got “a big mouth and a lot of attitudes,” and he is not afraid to put in the time and raise his voice to add extra things to a song to make it as good a record as it can be. “I think people came to depend on that [work ethic and attitude], and that is one of the reasons why, at the end of the day, I’ve been able to work for 50 years and I’ve done about 2,600 albums. The fact that I’m still working to me is one of the most amazing blessings. … I really appreciate it; I’ve worked hard for it—and I don’t take it for granted.”
Sklar also keeps working because he rarely says no to jobs—unless they are non-union. “You always have to realize that if you’re not going through the union, you’re not going to get the pension; you’re not going to get health and welfare; there’s a lot of things you sacrifice,” he says. “Sometimes people will contact me and say, ‘Can we just do it non-union?’ and I say, ‘Well, no, we can’t, actually.’ If we don’t go to the union, you’re not getting to walk away from the things that the union survives on.”
Sometimes, he says, he gets frustrated by the politics and the minutiae involved in the reality of any labor movement, and he would just like to hunker down and play music. But without the minutiae, he says, “you would have a hobby and not a profession.”
“I think the essence of what a union is really for is the protection of its members on many levels that they are not getting—you’re being protected from being ripped off,” he continues. “It’s a brotherhood and sisterhood of really gifted people that are trying to watch out for one another and work in the safest environment possible from exploitation.”
Sklar has played with countless musical brothers and sisters, both in studio and on the road. He is currently playing with his band The Immediate Family, comprising former members of the The Section. He says he prefers the road to the studio, mainly because you have a live audience. “That’s kind of life’s blood that really sustains my energy—to engage with an audience,” he says. “On the road I’m not one of those guys that sits back in the dressing room and only comes out for the show. I go out and I wander around and talk to people in the audience and make myself available just to sit and hang out with them because I’ve always found that to be really interesting.”
Of course, the coronavirus has changed every musician’s plans. Sklar said he had a year’s worth of gigs lined up for 2020—in the US, Japan, and Europe. And “in one fell swoop, I went from a full book to an empty book,” he says. The thing about being a musician in isolation, he continues, is that you can either roll over and give up or dig in and figure out what you can do to keep going. So, despite his age and the fact that he can authentically talk about the “good old days” of analog when albums were made in a professional studio, had A and B sides, concepts, cover art, a mastering process, etc., Sklar has become an exceptional example of creating an engaging—and paying—online presence as a musician.
He is online every day talking to and playing for his 129,000 YouTube subscribers, 85,000 Facebook followers, and numerous
Flatfiv.co digital clubhouse members (who pay money to join). His digital gig started because of the coronavirus quarantine, when he decided to film himself playing along with songs he has recorded over the years and show viewers how he played his bass parts. That expanded to live chatting with fans, telling stories about making albums, being on the road, and just general life as a working musician—and it jived perfectly with his long-held joy of hanging out with fans, which all of this web-based interaction allows.
“It’s become a serious focus for me … it’s something I look forward to and I love that it’s taken on its own life,” he says. “I’ve found it to be really cathartic, on both sides of the aisle. People that are writing to me are talking about how this has become a kind of oasis in their daily lives. They try to avoid the news, and people send me pictures of their family eating dinner watching my videos on TV. And for me it gives me a focus every day.” He sees this as a long-term interactive experience between himself and his fans, and he has no intention of stopping. “If this curtain of COVID suddenly lifts, if there’s a vaccine and we can feel safe … and I get to go back out and hit the road again and hit the studio again, I’m taking my channel with me,” he says. “This has really become to me as viable as any recording session or concert I’ve ever done, and I want to maintain it as such. It’s a Brave New World we’re in right now.”
Lee Sklar has an array of equipment he uses as a working musician, including: