Interview with Jim Horn, Legendary Reed Man

Aptly named saxophonist Jim Horn is one of the most prolific session musicians of all time. He has seen success as a solo artist, and remains an avid live performer. Horn has been a Nashville resident and Local 257 member since the mid 1980s, and his resume is nothing short of mind boggling.

Jim Horn, one of the most celebrated session and live performing musicians in the history of popular music.
photo by Rusty Russell

The Southern California native credits Duane Eddy with kick-starting his recording career, which led to prolific session work with everyone from Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, and Steely Dan to all four Beatles’ solo projects.

His signature flute parts on Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” are etched in music history. He has led the horn section for Sting’s biannual rain forest benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden and performed with Billy Joel at Garth Brooks’ Central Park concert. Horn has recorded with artists of all genres, from The Carpenters and John Denver to The Who and the Rolling Stones.

In Nashville, Horn has worked with a typically diverse range of artists like Don Williams, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Kenny Chesney, and still keeps a full session schedule going with no sign of slowing down. He has also released a number of solo records over the years, including Neon Nights, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart.

Dave Pomeroy and Craig Krampf sat down with Horn at Local 257 to talk about his life and career. “What a pleasure it was for us to hang out and talk with Jim, who is a true class act,” Pomeroy said.

Pomeroy: How did you get started doing sessions?
Horn: I owe it all to Duane Eddy. I left high school to go on the road with him, and we had recorded in Phoenix, but when he took me to Los Angeles for the first time to record, he introduced me to Ben Barrett, who needed a rock & roll sax player. At that time Plas Johnson was playing most of the dates, and I could play in that style. Plas was the man. He would hook the part in one take and that’s what I learned to do from him.

Ben asked me if I could double, and when I told him I played flute, baritone sax, and all the horns, he started calling me, and the next thing I knew I was on a Henry Mancini session when one of the ten bass flute players on the date didn’t show up. Hal Blaine was also a big help to me when I started out.

Krampf: Coming from rock & roll, were you comfortable reading those types of charts?
Horn: Thanks to my mom, I could always read music. She made me take lessons, starting on piano, but when I heard all those sax solos on rock & roll records I knew that’s what I wanted to play. I was 12 years old and I learned to read immediately.

When I started doing sessions, I could read anything, and that really helped me a lot. So did playing a lot of different instruments. I went out and bought a bass flute to play the Mancini dates and that’s when I started collecting a lot of instruments. When I played oboe and English horn on the Carpenter’s records, I had only been playing them about a year. I brought my tone and vibrato to the different horns, so it still sounded like me.
When I played oboe on Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Vince DeRoza, a top session and symphony French horn player was on the date. As the session ended, he said “You’ve got the sound, man,” and that really made me feel good.

Pomeroy: Can you tell us about the flute part on Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country?”
Horn: Alan Wilson, who wrote and sang the song, called me in to replace the original flute part. He played it for me, and we changed the line around a little here and there. After I recorded the part he asked me to double it. I said, “Are you sure? On a rock record?” He said yes, so we did. He liked it so much that we tripled it. It ended up sounding like a Pan flute. In the mix it’s panned left, right and center. The first time I heard it on the radio driving in my car I couldn’t believe how loud the flutes were in the mix.

Krampf: What were the Pet Sounds sessions like? Were there written charts?
Horn: The records I did with the Beach Boys were special, and a lot of them still pay royalties even now. Once in a while Larry Knechtel would write a chord chart for the rhythm section and Hal Blaine would have a road map, but the rest was up in the air.

Brian Wilson would come over to us and he would pick out an instrument for me to play, as he had me bring everything. He would ask me to try different horns looking for the perfect sound. Then he would sing us parts and melodies and we would memorize them. Nothing was written down. Sometimes, for songs like “Good Vibrations,” we would cut short pieces of music only, just eight or 16 bars and only Brian knew how they would connect in the end. As it turned out, Pet Sounds influenced Paul McCartney to make Sgt. Pepper (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles).

Krampf: You did quite a few Phil Spector sessions. That must have been quite an experience.
Horn: Those were crazy sessions, usually at Gold Star, and everyone was crammed into one small room. Four piano players, two guitars, Fender bass and Danelectro, both played with picks an octave apart, drums, horns, and more, all live. Spector was like the Lenny Bruce of producers. Sonny Bono worked for him so he and Cher would be there, sometimes playing tambourine or shaker. The horn charts were written by Jack Nitzsche and most of the time there was nothing more than whole notes on a lot of the songs. We wanted to play the funky licks but they wouldn’t let us.

When we cut “River Deep, Mountain High” with Tina Turner, they finally let us play the lick! [Horn sings funky intro lick] Phil was trying to keep Ike Turner out of the studio, he just wanted to work with Tina. She was amazing, she just walked into the studio, introduced herself, and lit the place on fire. We cut the track with her in the vocal booth right behind the horns. We didn’t have headphones on, so we didn’t hear the vocal until the playback and then – wow. That was a great record, but it wasn’t a hit at the time. We recorded “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” with the Righteous Brothers in the same studio. No head phones on.

Krampf: I always thought Johnny Rivers was underrated. Changes and Realization were great albums that you played on with him. Were those arranged by Marty Paich?
Horn: Yes. I would play on the rhythm track and Marty would write strings around my part, and then I would be part of the string and horn section on the overdub. Johnny was very smart and owned his own publishing long before it was fashionable, and later on was one of the first artists to produce himself for his own label. Lou Adler actually produced his early records. Bones Howe engineered them.

Pomeroy: How were you able to juggle touring and keeping things going in Los Angeles?
Horn: One time I came home for a while, and people weren’t calling me, because they assumed I was on the road, so I started booking club gigs out in Orange county, just me and a drummer and a keyboard player playing left hand bass, playing weekends. That helped lead me to get the Shindig TV show house band gig with James Burton, Knechtel, and Leon Russell. Plas Johnson’s brother played piano and he had that great New Orleans style. That was a fun gig, and I kept my weekend club gig going too.

Pomeroy: How did you make the transition to working with so many English artists?
Horn: I got to know Leon Russell, who’s still a great friend, when we were in Los Angeles doing sessions, and we did the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour with Joe Cocker. I quickly found out that all of the English artists that I worked with were really influenced by American music. Then a while later, I got a phone call from George Harrison. He said “Leon says you write horn parts. Is that expensive?” [Horn laughs] George was always very frugal. He said, “All my friends in Bangladesh are starving and Ravi [Shankar] has asked me to help them.”

So I put together a horn section for the record and then George’s Bangladesh concert in New York, and it was an incredible experience. That was the beginning of my friendship with Eric Clapton, and I played the Concert for George with Eric after George passed away.

Elton John came to L.A. to record and I was asked to put together a horn section for “Little Jeannie.” He came into the studio dressed in a mink vest with diamond earrings and silk pants, he looked outrageous! He loved the horn arrangement and asked me to play an alto solo as well. He wouldn’t let me do more than one take. He said “You’ve painted the picture – it’s done.”

Pomeroy: Bobby Keys is an interesting character, to say the least. How did you meet him?
Horn: He heard me with Duane Eddy in Lubbock, Texas when I was 16, and a few years later I met him when we were recording with Delaney and Bonnie up at Leon Russell’s studio in his house. We hit it off right away, and I ended up hanging with him in England for a while in the 70s. Bobby, Jim Price and I played together on sessions in England for people like The Who and the Rolling Stones.

Mick Jagger was impressed that I had actually met Muddy Waters, who was his vocal idol. Bobby and Keith Richards are very close, and we worked with Keith a couple years ago in New York playing in Steve Jordan’s band. He was a total gentleman — on time, sober, and professional, and was drinking tea. That’s the side of Keith that I like. Bobby’s been here in Nashville for a while now, and we still get together.

Pomeroy: What was behind your move to Nashville? Did you have to change your style to fit in?
Horn: Jimmy Bowen, who I worked for in Los Angeles for Sinatra and others, had moved here, and I called him just to say hello and he immediately asked me to come record on something he was working on with Mel Tillis, “There Ain’t No California.” He kept calling, and I started playing on some hits. I had met Denise Draper, a songwriter, and I was ready for a change so I moved here and we eventually got married. I ended up talking a bunch of people into moving here. Steve Cropper, Duane Eddy, Leon Russell, Joe Osborne and other friends would come stay with me, check it out, and ended up living here. Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton, and Donna Summers were some of my Los Angeles friends as well.

Not long after I moved to town, Garth Fundis called me and said that Don Williams wanted to try saxophone on a few songs. I thought, this is great, cutting live in the studio with Don and the studio band. Such a great singer and what great songs. “That’s The Thing About Love” and Walkin’ A Broken Heart” were both No. 1 country songs. I ended up touring with him for two years in the mid 80s. I was still doing my thing, but in a different context.

Pomeroy: How did you end up going on the road with Kenny Chesney?
Horn: He and [producer] Buddy Cannon had called me to play horns on a record every once in a while, and I said “If you keep this up, you’ll have to take some horns on the road!” One day Kenny called me up, and said, “I’ll send you a bunch of songs and you write horn charts for the ones you think could use it, and we’ll try it at a rehearsal and see what works.”

I wrote 13 charts and he loved it. So we went out on the road and the crowd really dug it, even on the songs that had no horns on the record. Kenny had a lot of fun onstage with us, smiling, jumping around, conducting us, whatever. He gave the horn section our own bus on the road — that was amazing. He treats everybody great, never a bad word to anyone. I ended up doing four years on the road with him. I love him like a little brother, he’s a great guy — I hope we do it again.

Pomeroy: What advice would you give a young musician today?
Horn: Practice practice, practice. If your goal is to be the best at what you do and to earn a living playing music, you’ve got to practice and fall in love with your instrument. You should always be listening when you practice and train your ear to make sure you’re in tune, and play difficult lines slowly at first. I played along with records and that helped a lot.

Krampf: What’s coming up next for you?
Horn: I am getting ready to do a record combining Native American flutes with the natural water and nature sounds of Cumming Falls, near Gainesborough, Tenn. Bill Vorndick is going to record the falls for me and I will overdub layers of flute melodies and maybe a few other instruments. It should be a lot of fun and very relaxing to listen to.

I also may finally release some tracks that I produced on Renee Armand in L.A. in the mid 70’s. I called in all of my friends to help record the tracks for us and wrote all of the string & horn arrangements. Renee kept the original tracks that we shopped with to get a record deal, but they were never released. We digitized the tracks recently & they sound great.

Pomeroy: Any final thoughts?
I just wanted everybody to realize how important it is to have your family there for you when you’re in the music business. I always had great support and understanding. I’m now divorced and single and I’m spending a lot of time with my daughter Josie, who I love very much. She’s a strong and beautiful girl. I’m teaching her how to play the flute and she’s learning very fast. Hopefully she’ll join Local 257 some day!

To find Horn’s music online, go to http://www.jimhornmusic.com.

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One Comment on “Interview with Jim Horn, Legendary Reed Man”


  1. Thanks for this great interview! I’m currently revising my biography of Canned Heat founder Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, and it was helpful to read Jim’s recollection of his recording session with the band.

    I hope anyone who’s interested in learning more about Wilson will check out my website at http://blindowlbio.com. The first edition is currently available as a print book. Thanks to this article I will now have a little more information for the second edition which should be available later this year.

    I’ll be sure to share this interview with fellow music fans. Thanks again and, as Canned Heat always said, don’t forget to boogie!


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