Courtesy of Don Randi
If you’ve ever bopped along to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boot Are Made for Walkin’, the Beach Boy’s “Good Vibrations” or The Ronettes “Be My Baby,” then as Don Randi would say “You've Heard These Hands.” In fact, that’s the title of the prolific piano player’s new book, which highlights more musical moments from his career than you probably have in your record collection at home.
While Randi may not be a household name, it’s safe to say that anyone that’s ever listened to music is familiar with his work. As a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew, Randi played with some of the most iconic performers of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But his musical journey started much earlier, when he was just a boy living in the Catskills.
Randi’s father ran the Works Progress Administration in New York during a very a infamous period in American history. In his role at the works program the elder Randi helped the persecuted, like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, navigate the pitfalls of life during the Hollywood blacklist.
As Randi recounted in a recent one-on-one interview, the hardship made its way to the family’s home. “Because of my father’s association with everybody and being the liberal guy, he got the heat also… It was the only really dark time of the whole time up in the Catskills. They put my father through hell. And I’ll never forgive them for it.”
But there was a bright side to that time in Randi’s life, too. His dad also owned a hot spot in the resort area. “People came to that restaurant for a lot of reasons,” he recounted. “It had great food but they knew late at night all the acts that were in the Catskills would come to The Actor’s Inn… They’d end up at the Actor’s Inn late at night because that’s where they got their money from the agents and the manager who had collected for them. So it was a party late at night. It was a lot of fun.”
There was also an instrument there that would factor heavily into Randi’s future career. “We had a great piano that was always tuned in the back of our restaurant that a lot of singers or somebody would try a new piece of material in the back,” he recalled. “I would always stand back there hiding in absolute amazement.”
Lessons with three pivotal teachers followed — Anne Plotkin, Milton Jacobs and Irving Hertz. But it was Hertz who taught Randi the valuable lesson, “Don’t ever be afraid to make a mistake.” As Hertz wrote in Randi’s yearbook, “If you try and play safe all the time and you never try anything, you’ll never know.”
Randi definitely took risks when he moved to Los Angeles to become a musician. Once there he started to get session work and become a part of Phil Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound. His first gig with The Wrecking Crew was the 1962 recording of The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel.”
As Randi recalled, “The first time I heard ‘He’s a Rebel’ on the radio, I was in my car and I said, ‘My God, I played on that record.’ And I was proud of that. You’d never know there were three or four piano players but I was one of them.”
He went on to lend his talents to tracks by everyone from The Association to Townes Van Zandt. The list is so long, even Randi once forgot that he had recorded with James Brown. But that’s almost fathomable when you consider that he worked with Neil Diamond on “Cracklin’ Rose,” The Jackson 5 on “ABC,” Dean Martin on “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime,” Harry Nilsson on “The Point!,” Elvis Presley on “A Little Less Conversation,” Sonny and Cher on “I’ve Got You Babe,” and The Righteous Brothers on both “Unchained Melody” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
But even though he worked with pretty much every music legend of the ’60s and ’70s, Randi said he was never intimidated by the music world’s biggest icons. “It didn’t bother me if I had to go in and play triplets for ten hours for Phil Spector and your hands were breaking. I remember the first time I did that, and that’s when we were called the Wall of Sound, before we became the Wrecking Crew. I remember Leon Russell and myself, we were looking at each other and saying, ‘Thank god we’re getting paid for this.’ It was hard work.”
All the while that he was recording, Randi was also heeding his teacher’s advice, “Don’t ever be afraid to make a mistake.” In fact, it was the imperfections of the job that Randi misses most about recording in the pre-digital era. “I loved the mistakes that became a part of the hit record,” he admitted. “You can’t do that so much anymore because of the electronic way everybody records and all the devices that they’re using. You live in Protools.”
Randi opined about the good old days, adding, “In those days you’d be in the same room with eight, ten guys or six guys, whatever it was, and somebody would make a mistake and everybody would look. And then they’d realize the mistake was better than what we were doing. If a producer was smart, he’d say, ‘Oh, wow. Hold it. Who did that? Let’s go that direction.’ And there was that possibility like that. I lived for that.”
And while he regrets not taking jobs on the road with Bette Midler and Elvis Presley, he will never be disappointed by his association with Nancy Sinatra. “She’s my favorite of all the artists I’ve worked with.”
Randi also worked with Nancy’s famous father, Frank. “I always knew the edgy toughness that he had and all of that, which was hardly ever seen by me. But I never realized how charitable he was. He would do things. The last minute we’d get a call and Nancy would say, “We gotta go, my father’s doing this thing in Detroit.” And we would get paid for it from Frank. That came out of Frank’s pocket for children or for some famous hospital or whatever it was. We did those all the time. And that’s how Frank was and that’s the way Nancy is, too, especially with the war veterans. She hates war, she hates violence but if somebody goes into it and gets hurt she’s gonna be there and she’s amazing.”
With all of the hit recording, road trips, movie and TV work that Randi did throughout his career, he always managed to make time for his true passion — jazz. “I’d finish a gig during the day and I’d go right to a nightclub. I started on the Sunset Strip in 1957 and before that I was on 6th and Manhattan Place, a block from Western Avenue in Los Angeles at a place called Marianne’s Surf Club. I would go there on Sundays because they’d have jam sessions and I’d just try and sit in. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I learned. They kicked me out a number of times but I got better.”
That love affair with jazz led Randi to open his own club called The Baked Potato in Studio City, California, in 1970. Serving up spuds and songs nightly, Randi described the lure of the music that means so much to him. “Jazz is never the first chorus. It’s the chorus after that and the one after that and the one that. Because essentially, what you’re doing is you’re composing another song on what you’ve already played and another song on what you’ve already played the two times, so that you’re improvising grows.”
As for the multitude of hits that Randi played on, he confessed that he couldn’t pick one favorite. But he admitted that fans often ask about two tracks in particular. “I get a lot of accolades because of the harpsichord solo in [Linda Ronstadt’s] ‘Sound of a Different Drum.’ And there’s the end of a Neil Young [song] where I’m just playing on and on and I kept looking in the booth and thinking, ‘Are they ever gonna ask me to stop?” It’s one of the longest fades you’ll ever hear.’ I think it’s on a song called ‘Broken Arrow.’ They just said, ‘Keep on, keep on playing.”’ They just kept winding their fingers. ‘Keep going.’ So, I did.”
Luckily for music lovers everywhere, Don Randi is still going. His new book “You’ve Heard These Hands” gives a unique behind-the-scenes look at a world so few have had the good fortune to enter. To get your copy visit the official website. And to find out who's playing at The Baked Potato go the club's website.