Jim Keltner is one of the great Rock session drummers of all time. You have heard hundreds, if not thousands of songs that he has played on. The Los Angeles-based drummer got his start in the Capitol Records pop music machine in the 1960s, but it was his work with Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell and Joe Cocker in the late sixties that led to a career drumming alongside Rock royalty.
He’s an incredibly versatile musician who can play any style from jazz to blues to punk. But his style is not about big solos or pyrotechnics. He’s a pocket drummer, settling in the perfect groove to serve the song. That’s why he continues to be the go-to drummer after all these years, whether it’s as an emergency replacement, a tour drummer, or simply the best recording session guy available.
Here is a sample of his work, in chronological order:
Paul Revere And The Raiders – Him or Me (1967)
Keltner worked with several 60s pop acts including the Raiders and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. This track was a wall of sound session with three drummers and five guitarists, including James Burton, Ry Cooder and Glen Campbell.
John Lennon – Mind Games (1973)
Lennon, Harrison and Starr each recorded multiple albums with Keltner, and each established lifetime friendships with him. It became a bit of a running joke that he never recorded with McCartney.
Steely Dan – Josie (1977)
Steely Dan recording sessions were like the all-star games for studio musicians. Keltner got his chance at the plate on this track, and he lays down the perfect groove.
Ramones – Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio (1980)
The story goes that Phil Spector made Marky Ramone hit the same drum note over and over again for hours, and kept the band in the studio at gunpoint until they got the fucking thing right. Needless to say, band morale suffered, and Keltner was summoned to redo the drum parts.
Pink Floyd – Learning To Fly (1987)
Another Jim Keltner rescue job. Roger Waters was going to take his ball and go home, but David Gilmour wanted to make a Floyd album without him. Drummer Nick Mason felt he was out of practice and didn’t want to participate, so the call went out for the big gun, who delivered as always.
Richard Thompson – Why Must I Plead (1991)
An example of Keltner’s incredible touch. You don’t have to play drums loud or fast to play them beautifully. Listen for the soft rolls, the relaxed snare on the backside of the beat, the barely-touched high-hat. The outro with Thompson’s sweet, muted licks is a master lesson in the power of restraint, sometimes I listen to it over and over again.
Bob Dylan – My Back Pages (1993)
Dylan used Keltner on several albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but you can’t get Dylan recordings on YouTube, so I’ve included this video from Dylan’s 30-Year recording anniversary at MSG, which also provides the bonus of watching Jimmy playing his kit.
Sheryl Crow – Every Day Is A Winding Road (1996)
Musicians love Keltner’s casual, loose feel because it gives their songs a rounded, organic sound, but his style disguises the incredible precision and deceptively simple patterns of his technique.
George Harrison – Brainwashed (2002)
Keltner had this to say about his dear friend George: “Forget his singing, I mean, I used to just love to just listen to him talk. And all the funny stories about him recently about being the quiet Beatle – he was the most talkative person I know. He didn’t stop talking. But the thing that was beautiful about George was that he always had something to say. I used to see people get their feelings hurt being around him. It was almost as if he couldn’t not tell the truth.”
Pretenders – Boots Of Chinese Plastic (2008)
Chrissie Hynde was reforming her band and regular drummer Martin Chambers was unavailable. So who ya gonna call? Keltner showed off his rock chops on the album, but never toured with the band. He was too busy working .