The title of this post is actually a little misleading. I am not referring to auditioning for music school, or cruise ship gigs. The audition I am referring to is for the touring “sideman,” accompanying another musician (or musicians) on the road.
There are many really brilliant sidemen, some as famous (amongst musicians) as the stars themselves. Why is that? What is the secret to their never-ending success? The “secret” is that they are prepared for touring at a level so advanced and thorough it would be an act of insanity not to hire them! They have a massive amount of musical knowledge to draw upon – knowledge very meticulously acquired, internalized, and maintained. And even if you and I are not as talented as they are, we can prepare like they do and succeed quite marvelously.
For example, when I began performing professionally in the late 1980s there were a lot of musicians from the 1950s still touring, and one could make good money working with them. So I knew I needed to be really well versed in the music in order to be able to compete with the veteran sidemen: I needed to be at their level as quick as possible. This was long before the Internet, so I spent all my free time at the library listening to records, reading up on rock artists between 1950-1963, and taking copious notes. I listened to hours of Buddy Holly and Little Richard, as well as Eddie Cochran, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Big Joe Turner, Frankie Lymon, Big Mama Thornton – anyone I could learn anything from.
I also spent many more hours playing along (on tenor sax and drums) with cassette tapes, figuring out what made the song or beat feel good, what kind of rhythm breaks sounded the best between verses, etc. I paid very close attention to how drummer Jerry Allison played with Buddy Holly, and more importantly, tried to understand why Allison made the musical choices he did. This also included research on what reeds and mouthpieces the horn players from that era used, and which combination would suit my particular tenor sax.
I listened to dozens of blues artists from that era, and previous decades as well, as I soon discovered a significant number of early rock n’ roll songs were based on a 12 bar blues form. I also noted the keys that these songs were in, and made note of the most common keys used – overall, and by each particular artist – written down as a percentage of the hundreds of songs I had analyzed. I also knew that I might have to be able to play the songs in different keys, as touring artists like to change song arrangements while on the road. Thus, I made sure I was able to play any song in at least three keys up or down from the original. This also prepared me to be able to play these songs with cover artists whose vocal ranges necessitated a key change.
There was also the question of repertoire. Everyone is familiar with the hits, but I knew I had to know about the artist’s total output if I wanted to win the audition promptly. Everyone knows Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock, but could I play Milkcow Blues Boogie… in C#? How about LaVern Baker’s Jim Dandy? Could I play it in several keys on the saxophone, and play a great backbeat on it on the drums? What would you do if you had to improvise a a saxophone part to Chuck Berry’s Jo Jo Gunne, on the spot? Even after all that, I knew that if I wanted to really ace auditions I would also need to know material from the 50s that was not rock n’ roll but was in people’s homes at the same time. Elvis recorded many gospel songs, so I needed to know as much as I could about gospel music. Luckily, someone turned me onto the Chicago or ‘Illinois Sound,’ and thus I got to hear great artists like Rev. Robert Ballinger, Robert Anderson, and the fabulous Reverend Sammy Lewis, among others. I even tracked down old recordings (1920 – 1941) of preachers such as Rev. Frank Cotton and Deacon Leon Davis!
Now, fast forward to my audition for Canadian rock legend Bobby Curtola’s double bill tour with Donna Presley (Elvis’ cousin). Also, the opening acts were Buddy Holly and Elvis impersonators that I would be accompanying as well. It only took a couple of seconds before they stopped the audition and gave me the gig on the spot! I was a walking rock n’ roll library with a saxophone attached. They had to hire me.
(That was also the tour that I got to work with L.A drum master and author Jonathan Brown… the only musician on the planet who can take the technical virtuosity of Neil Peart and make it feel as good as Clyde Stubblefield!)
I have used this method to prepare for auditions in a variety of styles, including possible auditions I think I might have in the future, and it always works. And you never know when you will need it. I ended up playing with Angelique Kidjo, for example, because I was in a band opening for her, and during the break she asked me if I knew Mutoto Kwanza… a song of hers I had decided to learn the day before, in 4 keys… “just in case!” I nailed the “audition” without even picking up my horn. Luck favors the prepared, as they say, and I get lucky all the time… (and so will you).
Now it certainly is a hard, often exhausting process, but it guarantees great results. The word will eventually get around that you are the go-to sideman for touring, and the phone will never stop ringing. Good “luck!”