Full name, Ryland Cooder; born March 15, 1947, in Santa Monica, Calif.; son of W.H. Cooder (an accountant); married Susan Titleman (an artist); children: Joachim.
With over a dozen solo albums, ten soundtrack LPs and countless studio dates to his credit, Ry Cooder has become one of the most tasteful and in-demand guitarists in the music world. He has drawn on a wide variety of influences, including the blues, rhythm and blues, Hawaiian, Norteno, and even vaudeville, to create an exceptionally unique voice on his instrument. "The sounds he makes and the images those sounds evoke place him closer to Zen masters and Impressionists painters than to other guitarists," wrote Bud Scoppa in Guitar World. SL Cooder's roots began at the age of four when his father taught him some basic chords on a four-string tenor guitar. As his hands and abilities developed, he progressed to a fullsize Martin by which time the eight-year-old had become proficient enough to play folk songs from his parents' record collection. Four years later Cooder heard the haunting slide guitar work of Blind Willie Johnson and set out on a path to search for, and absorb, as much of the old acoustic blues as he could find. A local mailman opened up an entire world for Cooder by turning him on to obscure artists like Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis, Leadbelly, Blind Blake, and Jesse Fuller. After losing an eye to a knife accident, the youngster bypassed normal childhood activities like little league baseball in order to master these peculiar styles. The effect of a Big Joe Williams record helped to plot Cooder's path, " ... it moved me up--it got me to sweat! ... I wanted to hear that slam, you know? So I declared myself on the side of the energetic movement," he told Guitar World.
Although he befriended John Fahey and Barry Hansen (Dr. Demento), most others his age were enamored with the early rockers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and so Cooder experienced limited musical exchange with his peers. Instead, his education took place in small club called the Ash Grove, where Cooder was able to experience up close the techniques of his idols. "I was lucky," he told James Henke in Rolling Stone. "I saw a lot of good things firsthand, and I heard them the way they were supposed to be heard. I made it a point to check out what was there so I wouldn't miss anything." Cooder began to work closely with Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, whose use of open tunings made a lasting impression on Cooder's own style. Originally using them for rhythm work, he soon discovered their potential for slide and continues to use the open tunings--mainly D (D,A,D,F#,A,D) and G (D,G,D,G,B,D)--for his contemporary work.
A former winner of the prestigious Topanga Canyon Banjo and Fiddle Contest, Cooder maintains a reputation as a perfectionist. "I've watched Ry perform during the years and remember the mumbling and swearing under his breath as he would miss notes or phrases that sounded just fine to everyone's else," wrote Bob Baxter in Guitar Player. Cooder found a kindred spirit in Taj Mahal and in 1966 the two formed Rising Sons, which lasted just long enough to be captured on vinyl with the LP Taj Mahal. Shortly after, Cooder's playing caught the ear of Captain Beefheart, an off-the-wall, eccentric bluesman who employed Cooder for his now infamous debut LP, Safe as Milk.
After bounding around L.A. Club scene, Cooder was brought into the studios to work as a sideman by the Byrds' producer, Terry Melcher. His giant-mosquito tone soon found its way onto records by Randy Newman ("Let's Burn Down The Cornfield"), Little Feat ("Forty-Four Blues") and even the Rolling Stones ("Let It Bleed"). Producer Jack Nitzsche incorporated Cooder for the film scores to Performance and Blue Collar and helped to teach the guitarist a few tricks. "Don't play so much into it all the time; play off of it," Cooder told Guitar Player of the lessons, "and get your subtext operating, which is real important."
Unable to read music, Cooder at first found studio work intimidating. Once he learned the procedure and his role, however, he became one of the most sought-after players. "My job seemed to consist of taking strange instruments which were not as yet cliched in the rock field--like mandolin or dulcimer, even bottleneck guitar--and pump'em up, play 'em hard, and integrate myself into the ensemble as a color or sound effect," he told down beat. As the 1970s rolled in, musical trends and tastes changed and, as producers began calling for a more jazz flavored guitar sound, Cooder found his particular style to be in less demand and decided it was time to get out.
Encouraged to go solo, Cooder released his self-titled debut LP in 1970. The album, like his entire catalog, found Cooder digging up and recreating obscure and seemingly forgotten gems like "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times as These" by Alfred Reed. The next two LPs found Cooder intertwining exceptional acoustic and bottleneck slide guitars on songs by Fitz Maclean, Dickey Doo, Sleepy John Estes, Skip James, and others. Besides bringing in Earl "Fatha" Hines for a splendid duet on "Ditty Wa Ditty", his fourth LP, Paradise and Lunch, includes backup singer Bobby King, whose collaboration with Cooder over the years has been an extremely important ingredient to the guitarist's overall sound.
Unfortunately, writers, including Dave Marsh began to label his work. "Cooder's role is not so much to be a hitmaker or even an artist," Marsh wrote in Rolling Stone, "but to act as the only curator of our continent's musical heritage." Despite that type of categorizing, Cooder spent the next two years searching out two more masters whose styles were as remote from the current trends as one could get. He ventured to Hawaii to study with slack-key virtuoso Gabby Pahinui and ended up playing on The Gabby Pahinui Band LP. The next stop for Cooder was Austin, Texas, where he was drawn by the music of accordionist Flaco Jimenez. Cooder had spent six months learning to play the instrument himself, which helped to for a long-lasting friendship with the Mexican-American.
The final, and most ambitious, step would be to bring these two incredible, seemingly opposite, musicians together to create Chicken Skin Music (Hawaiian slang for goose bump music). "Sometimes I get fantasies about weird combinations of music and people that can really illuminate a song idea," Cooder told Guitar Player. "For me that's the most fun thing about making records, the reason I wanted to make records in the first place." Telling Rolling Stone it was his "equal opportunity group", Cooder scheduled the band, including three black gospel singers, on a seven-week tour. One of the most curious tours ever, the show offered some spectacular music but was unfortunately plagued by bad luck. "I believed in it, and I thought it was going to happen," Cooder said in Rolling Stone, "it was so great, who cold not like it? But it turned out that very few people did like it. Those were dark days." The group's melting pot of music was recorded on the live LP Show Time.
Cooder followed with the studio LP, Jazz, which, according to Bob Blumenthal in Rolling Stone, was "even an elegant re-creation, but too much of the material never gets beyond the category of the well-mounted museum piece." Once again Cooder was being labeled a "keeper-of-the-flame" of sorts but his next album seemed to put an end to that for good. Bop Till You Drop contained some of the funkiest, low-down rhythm and blues/rockin' gospel imaginable. "This record goes on a pedestal in the archives of cool right alongside Cab Calloway's zoot suit," wrote Guitar Player 's Tom Wheeler. A big fan of Curtis Mayfield, Cooder found the rhythm and blues format very comfortable. "It's a good solid form," he told Salley Rayl in Rolling Stone. "Lyrically, it's always been the place for me--little stories, ballads with a simple statement that I can sing." Bobby King's Sam Cooke-styled vocals helped Bop to sell over 300,000 copies, nearly six times as many as the rest of Cooder's work.
He continued the formula on Borderline while opting for a more rock and roll edge on The Slide Area, which seemed to have an uneven song section. After that record he told down beat 's Gene Santoro that he found himself "with nothing to do and no place to go and not a clue as to what to do about it. That's when I started doing film work." Cooder composed his first score for Walter Hill's The Long Riders and has since worked on three other Hill films. "You show me some images or give me an idea," Cooder said in Guitar World, "I'll figure something out, and it'll be all right--it'll work."
His ability to create a mood and enhance the overall project has once again made Cooder one of the most sought-after musicians. For Alamo Bay he played bajo sexto, lute, koto, flute, and harp in his never-ending quest for the right sound. "The great thing about these films, I swear, is they pay me money to go off and teach myself how to do things I don't normally do," he told Dan Forte in Guitar Player.
In 1987 he released his first studio LP in five years, Get Rhythm, and, with Flaco Jimenez back on accordion, Cooder was again creating a unique mixture of musical styles. As Ariel Swartley observed in Rolling Stone, Cooder's genius lies in his "inspired assimilation of instruments and players, as well as source and tradition." In addition to his solo LPs, Cooder continues to add his guitar voice to films and other artists' albums, and even dabbles in producing.
by Calen D. Stone
Ry Cooder's Career
Played with Jackie DeShannon, 1963; formed group Rising Sons with Taj Mahal, 1966; performed with Captain Beefheart, 1967; studio musician on recordings of numerous artists, including Randy Newman, Little Feat, Maria Muldaur, and the Rolling Stones; composer of musical scores for numerous motion pictures, including Candy, 1968, Performance, 1970, The Long Riders, 1980, Southern Comfort, 1981, The Border, 1982, Paris, Texas, 1984, Streets of Fire, 1985, Brewster's Millions, 1986, and Crossroads, 1986. Addresses: Office-- c/o Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
- Solo LPs
- Ry Cooder Reprise, 1970.
- Into the Purple Valley Reprise, 1971.
- Boomer's Story Reprise, 1972.
- Paradise and Lunch Reprise, 1974.
- Chicken Skin Music Reprise, 1976.
- Show Time Warner Bros., 1977.
- Jazz Warner Bros., 1977.
- Bop Till You Drop Warner Bros., 1979.
- Borderline Warner Bros., 1980.
- The Slide Area Warner Bros., 1982.
- Get Rhythm Warner Bros., 1987.
- Soundtrack LPs
- Performance Warner Bros., 1970.
- The Long Riders Warner Bros., 1980.
- Southern Comfort Warner Bros., 1981.
- The Border Backstreet, 1982.
- Paris, Texas Warner Bros., 1984.
- Streets of Fire MCA, 1985.
- Crossroads Warner Bros., 1986.
- Contributor to numerous albums, including Taj Mahal's Tal Mahal 1966; Captain Beefheart's Safe as Milk 1967; the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed 1969, and Sticky Fingers 1971; Randy Newman's 12 Songs 1970, and Sail Away 1972; and Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt, Trio 1987.
February 8, 2004: Cooder shared the Grammy Award for best pop instrumental album, for Mambo Sinuendo Manuel Galb´n. Source: 46th Grammy Awards, grammys.com/awards/grammy/46winners.aspx, February 8, 2004.
- Christgau, Robert, Christgau's Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
- Evans, Mary Anne, and Tom Evans, Guitars: From the Renaissance to Rock, Facts on File, 1977.
- Kozinn, Allan, Pete Welding, Dan Forte, and Gene Santoro, The Guitar: The History, The Music, The Players, Quill, 1984.
- The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
- down beat, August, 1986.
- Guitar Player, July, 1978; February, 1980; March, 1980; November, 1987; March, 1988; August, 1988; November, 1988.
- Guitar World, April, 1988; April, 1989.
- Rolling Stone, January 27, 1977; February 24, 1977; August 11, 1977; August 25, 1977; August 24, 1978; May 17, 1979; September 6, 1979; September 20, 1979; September 4, 1980; April 16, 1981.