Bassist who played on California Dreamin' and Bridge Over Troubled Water

Born: August 28, 1937;

Died: December 14, 2018

JOE Osborn, who has died aged 81, was an American bassist whose recorded catalogue is as internationally famous as his own name is virtually unknown outside of music industry circles. For a period of a few years during the 1960s and ‘70s he was a session player living in Los Angeles, and his ability and work ethic led him into the inner circle of the city’s elite local session players, which posterity has dubbed the Wrecking Crew.

Just the list of tracks which Osborn played on is enough to constitute its own playlist of some of the era’s most iconic music. His bass appears on the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Only Living Boy in New York, Richard Harris’ MacArthur Park, the Carpenters’ (They Long to Be) Close to You, Neil Diamond’s Holly Holy, Glen Campbell’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix, the 5th Dimension’s psychedelic hits Let the Sunshine In/Aquarius and Up, Up and Away, and many others.

Although the very nature of session playing means that the work of those hired musicians like Osborn was not always diligently recorded and credited, he played on dozens of releases between his full-time arrival in Los Angeles in the mid-‘60s and his move to Nashville in search of a slower pace of working life in 1974. Reliable discographies, for example, also reference his lengthy association with the Monkees, as well as playing engagements with the Partridge Family, Lee Hazlewood, Barbra Streisand, Lulu, and on some of Billy Joel’s early material.

Osborn found himself so in-demand during his LA period that the work kept coming even though he kept jacking his price up. When he made the move to Nashville in ’74, it was partly to alleviate the pressure of lengthy studio shifts and constant flights across the continent, and partly for the opportunity to record at the heart of the country music industry.

He and his family bought a farm outside the city and he travelled in to work nearly every day for 14 years, playing for Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr, Chet Atkins, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire and many others.

Born in Mound, Louisiana, in 1937 and raised between Texas and the Louisiana city of Shreveport, Osborn taught himself to play guitar on a Fender Telecaster and then kept using a pick to play when he shifted over to bass; he used the same Jazz Bass he bought in 1960 throughout his career, and said he did not even change the strings on it for the first 15 years. He began playing with Dale Hawkins, and then with Dale’s brother Jerry, and moved westwards as opportunities opened up.

The first big hit Osborn played on was Ricky Nelson’s Travelin’ Man, and he was part of the band which opened the famed Whiskey A-Go-Go club in 1962, playing backing for Johnny Rivers. No fan of travelling and financially secure enough to say no, he says he turned down opportunities to tour with Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and in later life he returned to semi-retirement in Shreveport, taking occasional gigs in local bands and with friends; including Richard Carpenter, whose first studio session with his sister Karen Osborn recorded.

Inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2010, Osborn died of pancreatic cancer at home in December 2018. “One of my lessons that I repeat over and over again,” he once said, “(is) the song will tell you what to play if you listen.”