Rocklike / Vigilante Man

Ryland Peter “Ry” Cooder is a multi-genre guitarist, string player, producer and multiple Grammy winner. Cooder writes original songs and often personalizes and updates obscure, pre 1960s music in a wide variety of styles. He has become a key roots music curator, and his personal catalog incorporates session work, soundtracks and collaborations with some of the world’s most interesting and diverse musicians.

Cooder has covered a wide swath of Americana, roots and World music, working in genres including Rock, Be Bop, Blues, R&B, Folk, Tex Mex, Hawaiian slack key, Irish, Indian, Norteños and African styles. I see him as one of the keepers of the flame of Americana music.

Director Walter Hill, for whom Cooder scored several movies, says Cooder is “the most talented person I've ever known. Not simply a singer or a guitarist or a folklorist or a collector of indigenous musics or a rock 'n' roller or a bluesman - but a very great artist who uses all these things to make the material of his own music."

Cooder was born in Santa Monica, California, in 1947, and graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1964. He still lives in Santa Monica, with his wife, Susan, to whom he has been married for almost thirty years. His son, Joachim, regularly plays and tours with him, playing drums.

During the 1960s, Cooder attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for a short time. "I liked the trees, I liked nature, I liked being up in Portland," he says, "but once you've recorded with Captain Beefheart, you might get a little bored in college." Cooder began to miss classes due to session work in LA. His counselor requested a meeting about the absences, and when Cooder told him he had made $5K for one week’s work in the studio, he asked Cooder, “Why are you here?”

He has had a glass eye since he was four, when he accidentally stuck a knife in his left eye while trying to repair a toy car. "All I remember is sitting in dark rooms and going to hospitals and seeing doctors,” he says. “A kid can't foresee anything like that, and once it happened it seemed as if the sky could fall in, as if at any time something can go wrong in a big hurry, and forever.” His left eyelid occasionally droops, which makes him look sleepy.

"So, what it amounts to for me, so far, it’s just that the instrument was given to me to do, you know, when I was pretty young. Four years old. A man came, gave me a guitar and said, ‘here, play this.’ And he seemed to know something. And I did. I just took it up and played it and have ever since.”

Cooder was active with other blues and folk players in the LA scene in the early 60s, most notably in a failed venture featuring Jackie DeShannon. I first became aware of him through friends who had seen him play the Ash Grove with the Rising Sons. The Rising Sons featured Cooder on guitar, Taj Mahal on guitar and vocals, Gary Marker on bass, Jesse Lee Kincaid on vocals/guitar, and Ed Cassidy (Spirit) on drums. You would think that with such a lineup they would have been hugely successful, and in fact – at the time – many wondered who would break big first, the Rising Sons or the Byrds. But the band didn’t pan out, I only heard one single from the band, "Candy Man"/"The Devil's Got My Woman" and their debut album wasn’t released until 1992.

The Rising Sons covered a lot of territory stylistically and the industry people had a hard time finding a niche to market the band. "We had difficulties distilling our multiple musical agendas down to a product that would sell,” said Marker. “We had no actual leader and no clear musical vision. I think (producer) Terry Melcher went out of his way to try and get us a great sound.” The fact that they were one of the first interracial bands of the period, probably didn’t help much with their commercial viability.

But for Cooder, playing at the Ash Grove was a watershed. Some people called the place the "West Coast University of Folk Music." It enabled him to see some of his heroes playing live in an intimate space. As a performer at the Grove from age 16, Cooder was able to see live performances by Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Earl Hooker, Lightning Hopkins and Muddy Waters. "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 was surrounded by similar talents. Future Byrds Chris Hillman and Clarence White met at the Ash Grove while both were in high school. Linda Ronstadt, Charles Bukowski, Lenny Bruce, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, Miriam Makeba and many others played the Ash Grove until a series of arson fires, largely blamed on Cuban exiles who were protesting films of then modern-day Cuba, closed the club for good in 1973.

Cooder worked with Taj Mahal on Taj's eponymous first album and rubbed shoulders with major bluesmen, including Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Johnny Shines and Willie Dixon. More importantly, Cooder’s position within the band was primarily as a rhythm guitarist. This meant he was working alongside one of the great slide guitarists – one who had taught Duane Allman how to play slide – The late, great Jesse Ed Davis.

Cooder joined Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, replacing a disgruntled Doug Moon, who left to pursue “true” blues music. Cooder is featured prominently on the 1967 album Safe as Milk. Cooder left Beefheart immediately after the Captain walked off the stage at the Mt. Tamalpais Festival. Beefheart, suffering from severe anxiety attacks and LSD abuse, claimed he had seen a girl in the audience transform into a goldfish and saw bubbles coming out of her mouth. The Mt. Tam show was a tune-up for their scheduled appearance at Monterey, which might have been a real breakout opportunity.

Cooder’s first real success came as a session musician on Randy Newman’s 12 Songs album. Cooder continued this session work, notably working with Van Dyke Parks, the Beach Boys, Neil Young, Van Morrison, the Monkees, Eric Clapton, Warren Zevon and many others.

Cooder worked with the Stones on Let it Bleed, playing the mandolin on “Love in Vain” and slide guitar on “Let it Bleed”. He also did the slide guitar work for both the Marianne Faithful and Stones’ versions of “Sister Morphine”. The Stones’ version would turn up a couple years later on Sticky Fingers. Cooder was brought in by Jimmy Miller to “beef up the guitars” (as Dave Mason had done on Beggars Banquet). Keith was pissed Miller thought he needed support – and while he stayed away from the studio, the others (including Nicky Hopkins) recorded several songs later released as Jammin’ with Edward.

"It was obvious to me by the time I was 20 that if I wanted to keep playing the same rock 'n' roll bottleneck (guitar) licks I could work a lot of recording sessions and make some money. But I also knew people would say, 'Just do the same thing you did on that last record.' You'd try to tell them you could do something better, but they'd say, 'We don't want "better." We want the same.' – Ry Cooder

Cooder partnered with Randy Newman again on Sail Away and, alongside Newman and Jack Nitzsche, as the backup band for Mick Jagger’s first single “Memo from Turner” and several other tracks from the Performance soundtrack. Around this same time, Cooder played the slide guitar part on Lowell George’s original version of “Willin’”.

In 1969, Cooder got a solo contract and cut back considerably on his session work to focus on his own albums, which arrived just about a year apart throughout the 70s. He set himself apart, right out of the box, exploring American songs from the 20s and particularly the 30s. His first album contained calypso, blues, gospel and country songs.


I first saw him live in 1970, at the Fillmore West, with a band which included Van Dyke Parks on keys, Chris Ethridge on bass and Little Feat’s Richie Hayward on drums. He was on a bill with Savoy Brown and Humble Pie. I remember he played a few solo acoustic things, “Police Dog Blues” with incredible finger picking technique. The show had a kind of swamp rock vibe to it. I went out and bought his album the next day.

He put out new releases every year (or two) from 1970 to 1987. All told, 11 albums in 17 years - and then he stopped. He did not release a new record until 2005. And, for the most part, he didn’t tour, either.

Cooder did do short runs with friends and accomplices. In 1988, Cooder produced and was featured in the Les Blank directed concert documentary film Ry Cooder & the Moula Banda Rhythm Aces: Let's Have a Ball. Featured performers included accordionist Falco Jimenez, pianist Van Dyke Parks, drummer Jim Keltner multi-instrumentalist Jorge Calderon, percussionist Miguel Cruiz, saxophonist Steve Douglas, trombonist George Bohannon, and vocalists Bobby King, Terry Evans, Arnold McCuller and Willie Green Jr. He also did a short tour with fellow roots musician David Lindley, but Cooder was largely out of the public eye for most of his career.

"I don't like being watched and I don't like being an entertainer. You get up there, and it's all so loud, and the stage is so big…I can't stand there one more time and say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, and especially you ladies’. I felt like a withered balloon under a chair on the day after a birthday party. People who love the applause should have it, but I don't care for it." – Ry Cooder

In the meantime, Cooder had found a lucrative side job, writing soundtracks, including several for Walter Hill. He didn’t release a new album for several years, but he continued to write scores for films, starting with Candy (1968) and Performance (1970). He ramped that work up in the 80s, writing for Blue Collar (1979), The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981), The Border (1982), Paris, Texas (1983), Crossroads (1986), Streets of Fire (1984), Cocktail (1988), Steel Magnolias (1989), Geronimo (1993), Last Man Standing (1996), The End of Violence (1997), and Primary Colors (1998).

He also worked with a litany of outstanding musicians, including Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (A Meeting by the River, 1993); Ali Farke Toure (Talking Timbuktu, 1994); Ibrahim Ferrer Buena Vista Social Club, 1997); Manuel Galban (Mambo Sinuendo, 2003); and the Chieftains (San Patricio, 2010).

He finally dropped a new record, his first in 20 years and first piece of his “Los Angeles” trilogy, Chavez Ravine, in 2005. The album was inspired by black-and-white photos he had seen of the Mexican hillside community destroyed to build Dodgers Stadium. The album featured Lalo Guerrero, Pachuco boogie king Don Tosti, Thee Midniters front man Little Willie G, and Ersi Arvizu, of The Sisters and El Chicano.

In 2007, he released My Name is Buddy, a picaresque journey of Buddy the cat during the depression. He took the time to produce and perform on We'll Never Turn Back, with Mavis Staples. This concept album focused on Gospel songs of the civil rights movement and also included two new original songs by Cooder. He followed this up with part three of the trilogy, I, Flathead, an offbeat story about a beatnik, salt-flats racer, and country musician, Kash Buk, and an extraterrestrial named Shakey.

The last time I saw him play live was fourteen years ago, when he played a series of concerts with Little Village, whose other members included John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe. This was a tour de force for roots music, with three great singer songwriters.

“I wanted to be a hillbilly. I wanted to be Ray Price. I thought, that’s the life for me.” – Ry Cooder

In the late 1990s Cooder helped the world learn about traditional Cuban music, when he produced Buena Vista Social Club. The recording became a worldwide hit and revived the careers of some of the greatest surviving exponents of 20th century Cuban music. Wim Wenders, who had worked with Cooder on Paris, Texas, directed a documentary of the making of the album in 1999, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Cooder was fined $25,000 for violating the embargo.

In 2011, he published a collection of short stories called Los Angeles Stories (City Lights Press), written about people living in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s. I enjoyed it, and – particularly if you’re familiar with LA) I think you will, too. Mother Jones critic Tim McDonnell called it "a requiem to a city wherein the world's tides swept together an impossibly diverse culture that was quickly squandered and homogenized by Hollywood and hit-hungry record executives" and "a deeply humane history of the time before instant pop hits and sprawling superhighways."

Ry Cooder's music has always had an allegorical, sociopolitical spin. The music he has always played comes from hard times and difficult situations. But his more recent work, for example, Election Special (2012) get downright granular. Election Special, according to Cooder, was written for the “'deacons in the High Church of the Next Dollar.” The album is an open love letter and a show of support for the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama, released to coincide with the 2012 Presidential Election.

Cooder’s most recent release, 2013’s Live in San Francisco, features the Corridos Famosos band, including Cooder’s son Joachim on drums and longtime friend and bandmate Flaco Jiménez on accordion. The release also features Mexican brass band La Banda Juvenil, and was recorded live during a two-night run at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.

If you’re unfamiliar with Cooder’s work, The UFO Has Landed – Ry Cooder Anthology collection on Rhino is a great place to start. And, if you’ve basically given up hope of seeing him play live, take heart. He is currently touring with Ricky Skaggs. He was never shy about sharing the stage with a quality guitarist.

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