Born Ryland Cooder on March 15, 1947, in Santa Monica, CA; son of W.H. Cooder (an accountant); married Susan Titleman (an artist); children: Joachim. Addresses: Office--Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
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 Impressionist painters than to other guitarists," wrote Bud Scoppa in Guitar World.
Cooder's musical education 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 full-size 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.
Learned from His Idols
Most young people of his age were enamored with the early rockers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, so Cooder experienced limited musical exchange with his peers. Instead, his education took place in a 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." 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 circulating around the 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 used Cooder for the film scores to Performance and Blue Collar, and taught the young guitarist a few tricks. "Don't play so much into it all the time; play off of it," Cooder recalled to Guitar Player of the lessons, "and get your subtext operating, which is real important."
Became Sought After Player
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 clichéd 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, included 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 spent six months learning to play the instrument himself, and in the process formed a longlasting 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. However, it turned out that very few people liked the mix. Cooder recalled, "Those were dark days." The group's melting pot of music was later recorded on the live LP Show Time.
Cooder followed with the studio LP Jazz, which, according to Bob Blumenthal in Rolling Stone, was "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 funky, low-down rhythms and blues/rockin' gospel. "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 sell over 300,000 copies, nearly six times as many as the rest of Cooder's work.
Began Working on Film Scores
Cooder continued the formula on Borderline, while opting for a more rock and roll edge on The Slide Area. 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 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 1985 Cooder wrote the score for German director Win Wenders's film Paris, Texas. "Ry Cooder's score is a peaceful, poetic journey into the soul of an acoustic guitar," wrote Tim DiGravina in All Music Guide. 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 continued to add his guitar voice to films and other artists' albums, and has even dabbled in producing.
In 1992 Cooder joined with John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe to form Little Village; the band recorded a self-titled album and toured briefly before its members resumed solo careers. Cooder also remained interested in international music, and in 1994 recorded Talking Timbuktu with African guitarist Ali Farka Toure, an album that won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Recording in 1994. In the mid-1990s he continued to contribute music to a number of films, including Dead Man Walking, Primary Colors, and Last Man Standing.
In 1997 Cooder traveled to Cuba to work with a number of musicians who, due to Cuban and American politics, had received little exposure outside their native country. Cooder gathered Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rueben Gonzalez, and many others in the recording studio, resulting in The Buena Vista Social Club, an album that eventually sold eight million copies and earned Cooder a Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance in 1997. His visit to Cuba also earned him a $100,000 fine from the U.S. Government (because travel to Cuba by Americans is illegal), though the fine was later reduced to $25,000. In 2003 he collaborated with Manuel Galban (also from the Buena Vista project) on Mambo Sinuendo, a recording that won two Grammys in 2003.
In 2005 Cooder returned with Chavez Ravine: A Record by Ry Cooder, his first solo album since Get Rhythm in 1987. The album tells the story of a poor Mexican-American neighborhood that is bulldozed over to make room for a new Dodgers' stadium during the late 1940s. "Cooder's work," wrote Thom Jurek in All Music Guide, "has almost always concerned itself with what has been left out, marginalized, and relegated to the place of memory."
by Calen D. Stone and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr
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; Crossroads, 1986; Pecos Bill (soundtrack), 1988; Johnny Handsome (soundtrack), 1989; Trespass (soundtrack), 1992; (with Ali Farke Toure) Talking Timbuktu, 1994; (with Buena Vista Social Club) Buena Vista Social Club, 1997; (with Ibrahim Ferrer) Buenos Hermanos, 2003; (with Manuel Galban) Mambo Sinuendo, 2003; and Chavez Ravine, 2005.
Ry Cooder's Awards
Grammy Awards for Best World Music Album, 1993, 1994; for Best Tropical Latin Performance, 1997; for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album (as producer), 2003; for Best Pop Instrumental Album (as producer), 2003; and for Best Pop Instrumental Album, for Mambo Sinuendo, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Ry Cooder Reprise, 1970.
- Into the Purple Valley Reprise, 1971.
- Boomer's Story Reprise, 1972.
- Paradise and Lunch Reprise, 1974.
- (With Flaco Jimenez) 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.
- Pecos Bill Windham Hill, 1988.
- Johnny Handsome Warner, 1989.
- Trespass Warner, 1992.
- (With Ali Farka Toure) Talking Timbuktu Rykodisc, 1994.
- (With Buena Vista Social Club) Buena Vista Social Club World Circuit, 1997.
- (With Ibrahim Ferrer) Buenos Hermanos World Circuit, 2003.
- (With Manuel Galban) Mambo Sinuendo Nonesuch, 2003.
- Chavez Ravine Nonesuch, 2005.
- As contributor
- Performance (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1970.
- The Long Riders (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1980.
- Southern Comfort (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1981.
- The Border (soundtrack), Backstreet, 1982.
- Paris, Texas (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1984.
- Streets of Fire (soundtrack), MCA, 1985.
- Crossroads (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1986.
- 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.
- "Ry Cooder," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (September 10, 2005).