Lee Ritenour - Captain Fingers
By Ralph Burnett
"You know it sounds like it should be something more sinister or sexual or something," says Lee Ritenour about his nickname "Captain Fingers" which he acquired in his early session days. "But, it was from my roadies carrying around all my guitars. I had this huge trunk (like a lot of session players did), and I must have had 20 guitars in there, and they were always complaining about the weight and calling me 'Captain.' So 'Captain Fingers' stuck and I wrote a tune and named an album that, and it's been sort of my tag ever since."
Lee's first professional gig came even before his California driver's license. "I joined a rock 'n roll band when I was about fifteen called the Afro Blues Quintet." recalls Ritenour. "They actually had quite a few records out and were starting to make a name for themselves. The leader decided he wanted to chase the 60's and the 70's and he got himself a rock 'n roll girl singer and formed a rock 'n roll band. I was in high school and my dad used to drive me to rehearsal on the other side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula in this sort of million dollar house that was over looking the ocean. Nobody could ever figure out how these guys afforded all that stuff. But, I was Mr. Naive and a very serious young musician, and I could play jazz and I could play rock, which back then there wasn't too may people doing that, especially in my neck of the woods. So I joined this group and lo and behold, the producer that produced our demo was John Phillips from the 'Mama's and the Papa's.' So I went up to his house. He had a studio and he had the fancy house in Bel Air and here I was recording with this rock 'n roll group and John Phillips is producing. And as a teenager, I was quite impressed."
It didn't take long for Lee to earn a reputation as the young, hot guitarist in town and achieved triple-scale studio musician status while still in his teens.
Through many years and hundreds of "gold" and "platinum" performances, Lee's favorite recordings were not necessarily the hits. "Records became favorites usually because of the company I was keeping," remarks Ritenour. "Anytime I worked with my buddy Dave Grusin it was a pleasure. I remember when I did this movie called 'Three Days of the Condor' for Dave. It was just an incredible sort of jazz group and the score to that movie is very special and it's something that's stuck with me all those years. So anytime I work with Dave or people like Quincy [Jones] it was great."
"I remember the Give Me the Night album I did with George Benson," comments Ritenour. "Quincy hired me sort of to be George's shadow and play a lot of the rhythm parts and to sort of help George out with his guitar sound and just kind of tweek things for him whenever I could help. And, of course, I was big 'George' fan and still am. There are a couple of funny stories connected with that album. George was living in Hawaii at the time and they were mixing the album and something happened to George's guitar on the track and George was thousands of miles away and they had to finish the mix. So Quincy calls me, practically in the middle of the night, and says 'Lee you got to come down and fix George's guitar part. We screwed up George's guitar.' So I came down and punched in two or three bars that were supposed to be George (so I had to sound like George). 'Till this day I don't know if George ever heard about that."
And there was another interesting story on that album," continues Lee. "We were recording one night with this incredible band which included Harvey Mason and Herbie Hancock and Greg Fillingains and Ray Parker, Jr. and myself and, I forget who was playing bass -- Willie Johnson, I think -- all triple-scale type players. Of course, George was there and sounding great. And, Quincy's all excited 'cause he says Stevie Wonder's coming down with a tune he wrote for George. So, we're gonna wait for Stevie Wonder. I said, oh great. Everybody's real happy about that. Stevie's famous for being late, you know, being a night owl. So we wait, and we wait, and we wait and now it's about 2 o'clock in the morning and Quincy's got all these incredibly expensive musicians just hangin' out. Finally Stevie comes down with his entourage and it takes another hour for everyone to say 'hello' and hang out and finally Quincy gets Stevie over to the piano. 'Let's hear the tune Stevie.' And Stevie sits down to play and says it goes something like this. He plays the intro and everyone's going 'yeah man, sounds great' and Stevie stops. He says 'how do you like it so far Q?' (You know he called Quincy Q). Q says, 'great man, go ahead.' He says 'well, just give me a few more minutes and I'll finish the tune.' So, that song never made the album."
"Harvey Mason and I used to go up to Fantasy Records all the time in San Francisco in Berkeley and work for Orin Keepnews," recounts Ritenour, "which we loved to do because Orin was recording with Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and trying to cross a few people over like Bobby Hutcherson, and he would call Harvey and I 'cause we were the contemporary musicians, but we could also play straight ahead. Harvey and I would go up on a Monday morning and sometimes the record would last five days and we would stay there and come back at the end of the week, or sometimes it would be three days, whatever. So we were going up on a Monday morning on one of those little commuter flights and just talking our asses off and the plane lands and we get off and we're still talking about whatever subject it was, and we walk out the door and we realize we had gotten off in San Jose. We realize we had screwed up and the session was like in an hour, and so we had to take a taxi from San Jose to Berkeley. The Fantasy people had a good joke on us because they had a monthly magazine in their record company and it came out and it says 'Does Harvey and Lee know the way to San Jose?'"
In the '70's, Lee recalls being young and full of energy and believed in a nine day work week. "I used to be a friendly competitor with another great guitarist, Jay Graydon. Jay and I were really kind of the top two guitar players around at that period. Larry [Carlton] by that time had already kind of drifted into his solo career or with the Crusaders or whatever. And so, at one point we were just doing as many sessions as we could. That was sort of like you were young and you had a lot of endurance and the more you did the more fun it was and the more crazy it was. And Jay said to me, hey man, last week I did 25 sessions. And I said, no kidding, 25 sessions in one week? how did you do that? Wow. So the following week, it was one of those weeks where I was hired to go to Berkeley for a few days and I think it was a Wednesday through Friday. And I had done a ton of sessions Monday and Tuesday and then I did all these sessions up in Berkeley and then Quincy called and he says Lee you got to come over and overdub on the Brothers Johnson we're mixing. And I said man, I can't make it, I'm totally booked all week long. He says you got to make it, when can you? Well, I'm up in Berkeley. When can you come home? Well, I'm coming home Friday night. And he says come to the session Friday night. So I got the session at midnight Friday night, and the other main reason I took it, that was my 26th session of the week. So I called up Jay the next week and I say hey Jay, I did 26!"
"I remember doing a date with the great percussionist, Willy Bobo. I was doing an Oliver Nelson album and Oliver was like a god to me, a hero, you know, from all those great things he had done. And I had this solo that was right in the middle of the album and it was like I was really going for it and a couple bars before the solo, Willy Bobo's standing right next to me playing congas, and without me seeing, he detunes my 'D' string. Not just a little -- a lot. And I went for that solo and the whole room broke up."
"Well, to end, I have to do a quick Tommy Tadesco story. It was almost the first time I worked with Tommy, by that time I had already met him, but not really worked with him and Tommy had heard about me, for sure. And I got there early, 'cause it was movie session with a full orchestra, to make sure everything was set up perfect, and I sat down at 'guitar one' (there was a 'guitar one' and a 'guitar two.' So Tommy comes in and sits down at 'guitar two,' takes out a big red marker and crosses out 'guitar two' on his book, and he writes 'guitar one' across the front and hands it to me and takes the other book."