An exclusive interview with
Spooner Oldham

Conducted by Scott Marshal

Known in the professional music world for his excellent, soulful keyboards, Lindon "Spooner" Oldham is a veteran songwriter, studio musician and "road warrior." Oldham, with Dan Penn and Duane Allman, helped craft the rock-solid rhythms and passionate performances of the "Muscle Shoals Sound" emanating from the northwest corner of the state of Alabama where he was born and raised. A grittier, funkier version of Southern soul, their sound was also called "deep soul" and it revolutionized rhythm and blues in the 1960’s.

Oldham released his own album, Potluck in the early ‘70s and his songs have been consistently recorded by well-known artists like Janis Joplin ("A Woman Left Lonely"), The Box Tops ("Cry Like A Baby"), James and Bobby Purify (I’m Your Puppet"), and Shirley Caesar ("Jesus, Is Only A Prayer Away"). He’s collaborated on songwriting with Hal Newman ("He’s Only A Prayer Away"), John Prine ("Me, Myself and I"), and Hank Williams Jr. & Dan Penn ("Out of Left Field"). He’s recorded with Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Joe Cocker, and The Everly Brothers. Over his four decade career Spooner Oldham’s contributed to numerous award-winning, and top-charted albums/songs while working as a studio musician in Alabama, (Memphis & Nashville) Tennessee and California with some of the most talented names in the business (Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Kate Campbell, Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Brothers, Hank Williams, Jr., B.J. Thomas, Bob Seger, John Prine, Charlie Rich, Ronnie Milsap, and Townes Van Zandt, just to name a few).

Although his organ/piano appearances have made him party to many a record’s Grammy nomination, he’ll be most familiar to our readers for his keyboard work with Bob Dylan on Saturday Night Live (October 20, 1979), the Grammy Awards (February 27, 1980), the Saved album (recorded February 1980) and the nearly 80 live shows in support of Slow Train Coming and Saved.

This excerpted interview was conducted by phone with Oldham from his home in Rogersville, Alabama on July 23, 1999 and will be printed in its entirety in Scott Marshall’s upcoming book, Grains of Sand, Shooting Stars and Prayers Murmured In Between: A Latter Day Look at Bob Dylan, 1978-1999, expected Spring 2000.


When did you first hear Bob Dylan’s music?

I heard the hits he’d have on the radio [covered by other artists] like Peter, Paul & Mary’s "Blowing In The Wind." I was always aware of his writing and when he had a song [released] by another artist, which was really happening a lot in those days, I was always aware of that.

When did you first work with Dylan and how did that come about?

Bob Dylan was here [in Sheffield, Alabama, in 1979,] at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio recording Slow Train Coming...and some friends of mine were playing on it. [I was working in the studio at the same time on a different project.] After they finished the album I understand Bob said something like well, I’m gonna need a keyboard player for this tour, [I want to play] this kind of music, and Tim Drummond, the bass player on the Slow Train session mentioned my name and Jerry Wexler [the co-producer of Slow Train Coming] mentioned my name, so Bob called me and asked if I’d be interested in touring for a few weeks. I had nothing particular going on so I said sure. He...leased a large building [in Santa Monica] and we rehearsed for three weeks and [I stayed with my family] there on the beach in a motel.

What were your thoughts on Bob Dylan becoming a Christian?

I guess, it’s cool, whatever he wants...

You were a part of Dylan’s band when he debuted those gospel songs to a live audience on Saturday Night Live in October of ‘79. What were your memories of that evening?

Well, it was good. It was the last show with the regular cast–Bill Murray and Jane Curtain–I liked that part of it, getting to meet those people and the producer. It was musically exciting was live and I enjoyed it.

Did you rehearse for Saturday Night Live at the beach?

No, the rehearsal for Saturday Night Live happened on the set. The way they did it back then was mid-afternoon you’d come into the studio so the cameraman could get a fix on where you’re standing and you actually played what you were going to do that night, for the crew mostly. Then you do it a second time, a song or two, later that afternoon and then the third time is the live one. So we actually rehearsed on the set. Even though we’d rehearsed the songs in Santa Monica.

Was there a positive audience response?

Yeah, it was nothing but positivity. Saturday Night Live, it was a very good thing to do. I enjoyed it, and it was very positive.

You were playing keyboard when Dylan took the show on the road opening at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. What were your recollections of the crowds at those shows?

I think the Warfield was pre-sold out, all two weeks, on the first night we played. I remember night one, two, and three was a mixed reaction as far as the audience. It’s hard to guesstimate, but half the audience would applaud after each song and half would boo. Getting there some evenings there were folks out in the parking lot with placards, sort of a subtle protest kind of thing. I don’t recall the nature of them, but "You’ve turned your back on...(something)," you know, that kind of thing. So that was very intriguing. Of course after the first three nights all the rebels didn’t come back, or either accepted it. But it calmed down and everybody seemed to enjoy it more. Although it was sort of enjoyable even when it was weird, ‘cause it was challenging to face that kind of audience. You knew the music and message was nothing but good news, so you couldn’t be bothered by that.

Other than the challenge, what else sticks out in your mind about those shows?

Well, I loved the building...a great job of renovation, and Bill Graham and his people had it looking really lovely. It was a nice setting like most of the places we played...afterwards. They were like 2,000-seaters, sort of smallish but very warm settings. I wish I had taken photographs that tour of the buildings we played because a lot of them were renovated, Vaudeville kind of theaters–beautiful stained glass, and woods. I didn’t know there were so many theater buildings from the olden days still around in that good of shape. And they were mostly good acoustic buildings, and nice to look at, so that made the tour really neat. But the Warfield Theater...I found it interesting that the whole two weeks was sold out so one didn’t have to think or worry about is anybody gonna show up. The tickets were bought. So it was a matter of, then, just getting comfortable and trying to enjoy the music, really.

I read that Dylan and the band were saying prayers as a group before the shows, is that true?

That’s true. Backstage the band would gather together for a minute and hold hands in a circle and someone, it would depend on the moment, someone would say a prayer.

I remember one night, maybe we were in Nashville, Regina Havis who was one of the background singers, her dad was a preacher, maybe Baptist, I’m not certain, but I remember he led the prayer that night, joined in our group. Mostly it was just a closed group thing that nobody really saw or knew anything about–it wasn’t done for show. It was a private thing. But I remember on that one night, it seemed like we were more near the lobby of the hotel and people could see us, I guess.

But yeah, that [prayer together] was sort of nice. That didn’t hurt anything.

After those shows in San Francisco and a few more in Santa Monica, you did two shows in Tempe, Arizona where the college crowd really booed and was pretty nasty to Dylan and the band. Do you recall those specific shows?

I remember the building, what I don’t remember is the audience reaction necessarily. It could of been like you said but nothing really equated to the first three nights to me. I guess I had grown immune to it.

I do remember, somewhere, it might have been the Warfield, some guy ran up on the stage beside Bob and sort of startled him, asking him questions or something about the Bible, I don’t know. It was sort of spooky, you know? You don’t know what they’re there for when they’ve removed themselves from reality like that. But with the help of able-bodied men they didn’t stay there long. [Laughter.]

And the second leg of the tour in January-February of 1980?

I just remember [we had very bad weather] several days running. We were on a bus and it was like a storm system was just hours ahead of us, each town we went. One town in particular I remember–I think, Portland, Oregon–as we were driving into the city that evening to our hotel, the power was out on that side of the town. It was total darkness, there was a lot of snow and the wind was howling. My thoughts as I went to bed that evening were well, I might as well gear myself for not playing the show tomorrow night because there’s no way it can happen. But the next evening we were there and everybody else seemed to be there. They had chains on their cars and four-wheelers, and everybody just gathered in there. Of course the power was on by then. But there were several days of just bad weather but that didn’t seem to deter folks any. I was pretty amazed at that.

Right after those February 1980 shows you entered the studio with Dylan to record the Saved album.

We were on the road with these songs already. He had written them and we had learned them and were playing them. It was essentially the same producers Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler that did the Slow Train Coming album. It was in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. But this time it was a traveling road tour band recording, so we essentially went in there and repeated our live performances. It went pretty smoothly. Everybody had fun and some of the folks had never been down to [Alabama], my hometown part of the world, so I was glad everybody was here.

What was Dylan like to work with in the studio?

Well, he was always from my point of view as a session musician–he might not like this word but–professional. I know he likes to have all the spontaneity possible within the framework of intelligence. He’s just basically, just like every great artist I’ve worked with, straight-up singers, they play and sing their song and you can jump in there with them. It’s not a lot of talking back and forth, and it’s basically a music experience, which that was.

A couple weeks after recording Saved, you were in Los Angeles with Dylan when he received his first ever Grammy for "Gotta Serve Somebody." What do you remember about that particular night?

What I remember about the Grammys [is the official photographer] took a picture of me and Bob and Tim, and I thought that was neat ‘cause I didn’t really have a picture of us together. We asked him could we get a copy, and I never got a copy. That’s what I remember mostly.

Aside from that, the music thing was good. You do a rehearsal in the afternoon prior to the event, for the cameraman and the sound man. [And I remember while we were] doing that, somebody in the production staff asked Dylan–by way of passing down to Bob through somebody else–would he cut the tune short for production purposes. In other words, it was like four minutes and they wanted it three, let’s say. And he said, "No." I remember that!

The first day is sort of interesting because at the Grammys...there’s all these stars and performers and entertainers milling around in the halls and backstage–Hall & Oats, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand–so you get a glimpse and maybe a brief word with all those folks. So that’s unique to the Grammys, that kind of coming and going, people doing their parts, getting off and seeing somebody else backstage. Actually the performance itself was a little nervous because it’s live and you hope you do good. You’ve got a theater audience which makes it nice. Plus you know you’re getting beamed out into living rooms across the country, so it’s all real exciting.

The last tour leg, April-May of 1980, were also your final shows with Dylan, was anything different about them?

I remember in Memphis...I had a few friends drop by backstage. I’m trying to remember, all the shows at this point started to be pretty comfortable, everybody knew their part pretty well. In a sense it was becoming more enjoyable because the stress and unsurity about everything [was gone], it was becoming crystal clear that it was just a matter of getting out there and doing it. So the audience started feeling pretty similar, everybody seemed to enjoy it. There was probably one or two in every crowd, still wondering why he was doing [gospel music].

At this point, the thing that might stand out would be something that happened that wasn’t on the stage. By then we were [feeling like we were ready] to stop somewhere and shop, or look at some boots or something...and it would always be too late at night. So you just go to the hotel. You get to wishing for things that aren’t there almost, that part of your personal life.

Is that kind of life on the road, then?

Uh-huh. Bob was always congenial to be around. He always rode the bus with us.

Traditionally, Dylan hasn’t said too much on stage preferring to just sing his songs, but those "gospel" tours were definitely an exception. Did he ever tell you why he was talking to the audience?

No. My role, I figured, was a musician–learn the song the best I could and go play every night. That was really the way I saw it.

I learned, well into the tour, that I was probably the only one who didn’t [hang out] after the show when you get back to the hotel. Seems that most people ended up in Bob’s room talking about the show. Which I never knew and to be honest, I never cared for that. I’m glad I didn’t go. You’re better indifferent. I don’t like to hash it out ‘cause I’d just lived it, and what can you say? After you get off a roller coaster you say, that was fast and I’m gonna ride it again or I’m gonna wait until tomorrow. [Laughter].

You’ve just read an excerpt of the interview with Spooner Oldham. The complete interview appears in On the Tracks issue #17 and is available from Rolling Tomes.



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