5 Unknown People Who Secretly Made All Your Favorite Music
What sucks about the entertainment industry is that usually a very small group of very pretty people get all of the credit for work done by an army of talented folks behind the scenes. For instance, the odds are overwhelming that you know who Nicki Minaj is, but don't know who writes her songs -- even though she'd be nothing without them. So occasionally we like to take a moment to shine the spotlight on where it really belongs ...
Ester Dean Wrote Half of Your Favorite Pop Songs
At this very moment, some starstruck young fan is probably telling Katy Perry how inspirational her lyrics are to her and how she changed her life, etc. And Katy is probably saying something to the effect of, "The pleasure was all mine, peasant!" before rolling off in her motorcade. Neither Katy nor the fan are acknowledging that the person who provided those inspirational words wasn't the singer, but the songwriter -- a person whose name is completely unknown to virtually all of us. Well, for probably half of the huge songs you can remember from the last eight years, that person has been Ester Dean. Oh, and this is the job she pretty much got right out of high school.
McDonald's wasn't hiring, so she settled on changing the face of millennial pop instead.
Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass"? Not only did Dean write it, she's featured in the chorus. Selena Gomez's "Come and Get It"? Also Dean. Usher, Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Sean Kingston, Kelly Rowland, Gucci Mane, Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears, Ludacris, and Cradle of Filth (probably) -- all of these artists have at least one Ester Dean-penned hit in their repertoire.
"We'll have you poppin' and lockin' right before we lock you in a coffin."
Her specialty, being a pop songwriter, is the "hook," the catchy-as-hell musical phrase that burrows into the listeners' skulls instantaneously and requires a lobotomy to remove. Katy Perry's "Firework," perhaps the most famous song by one of the most famous women on the planet? Dean hooked the shit out of that track, which made its rapid rise to the top of the charts almost a mere formality.
At around the same time, a more R-rated Dean concocted the Rihanna smash "S&M" -- a moving ode to bondage. Dean's demo of the song, by the way, makes us think Rihanna owes more to her than a quick thank-you note for introducing her to the finer points of whips and chains.
She's been at this since 2006, when she was just 20 years old. So how in the hell did she wind up writing everything on your radio while most of us were still drinking our way through college? Is she secretly Prince's niece or some shit? Nope -- she was living in freaking Omaha, Nebraska, sang for her mother's gospel choir, then made some friends in the local rap scene. We repeat: the Omaha, Nebraska, rap scene. Within a few years, she was living in LA and writing songs for freaking Rihanna and Chris Brown.
Carol Kaye Played Most of the World's Bass
If you are any kind of fan of music made in the last 50 years or so, there is one musician you've heard more than any other, and we're going to bet you've never heard her name.
To explain, well, first let's pause this article for a motherfucking funk break. We don't care where you are -- turn up your speakers and let's all listen to the goddamned theme from Shaft (if not, take a moment to imagine it in your head):
Now we want you to imagine what the recording of that song looked like. It's 1971, you're making a track for a movie about a black detective, and it's being sung by Isaac Hayes:
This was before he let himself go by sampling too much cafeteria food.
Were you imagining that the person playing the funktastic bass on that song was a 36-year-old mother of three? Yeah, meet Carol Kaye:
"I was all about that bass before the radio made it cool."
She was there, because she was the bassist of her era. And when we say "the bassist," we mean she was apparently the only one -- she turns up on almost every album. She is literally one of the most recorded musicians of all time.
Starting as a teenage jazz guitarist, she was asked to pound out some bass after the intended pluckmeister didn't show up at a recording session. From then on, she was the go-to name whenever a cool-ass bassline was needed. For example, The Doors had no bassist unless you count Kaye, who's all over "Light My Fire" and probably anywhere else they could stick her. You can hear her on Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by the Righteous Brothers. She's also worked with Simon & Garfunkel, played for the Beach Boys when Brian Wilson was too busy being Brian Wilson to do it himself, gave Nancy Sinatra's boots something to walk to -- honestly, it's easier to list the names she hasn't worked with.
Get some scientists to compile it, since you'd probably need their microscope afterwards just to see it.
That's because from the 1960s on, Kaye played with just about everybody over an estimated 10,000 recording sessions. Since a session typically covers multiple tracks, her total musical tally could easily be six digits. When she wasn't dominating radio stations and record stores, she was busy laying basslines into the soundtracks of every movie and TV show ever. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, Hawaii Five-O, Wonder Woman, M*A*S*H, The Love Boat, Hogan's Heroes, Mission: Impossible ... even the freaking Cosby Show, all boast her bass in one song or another.
And she did it while looking like June Cleaver the whole time.
So ... how in the hell did she wind up as the world's go-to bassist, to the point that she got the call for freaking Shaft? Well, she came along at the right time, for one: when she got her start, the electric bass was still a fairly new instrument, and she was simply one of the first to really master it. She had three kids at home (their drunken father having run off) and paid the bills by doing nonstop session work, sometimes with three or four bands in a day.
She's still around, by the way -- Kaye retired to become an instructor. She has a website where you can Skype with her, and she'll teach you how to play. Or you can visit her and learn face-to-face, unless she's busy teaching Gene fucking Simmons how his instrument actually works:
Giorgio Moroder Created All Your Favorite '80s Soundtracks
The 1980s had a very distinct sound, and that's largely thanks to one man. Go pop in a blockbuster movie from the '80s (use your LaserDisc player), and you'll hear what we mean: inspirational rock anthems, big, sappy ballads, dance tracks -- all with that electronic synthesizer in the background. You hear it, and you immediately picture pastel suit jackets and feathered hair.
For example, what's the single most '80s movie and/or soundtrack you can think of? It's Flashdance, right? And this song:
Now queue up Scarface, and you hear what might be the most stereotypical "1980s inspirational montage soundtrack" tune of all time, "Push It to the Limit":
(In fact, you may have heard that song in a South Park episode mocking 1980s montages). Starting to see a similarity to the style there? Now, go grab your Top Gun VHS. Slap it in, and note that its two hit signature tracks -- the romantic sapfest "Take My Breath Away" and fucking "Danger Zone," despite neither sounding one single iota like the other, both came from the same guy who made all of the tracks above: dance guru Giorgio Moroder.
Moroder wasn't a lyricist, but his electronic, synth-heavy sound dominated Hollywood and TV during the Reagan era, and basically gave the decade its sound. American Gigolo, Metropolis, the original Battlestar Galactica -- Moroder scored them all. His music for Midnight Express even won him an Academy Award for Best Original Score -- the first time ever an all-electronic soundtrack got the nod. Oh, and maybe you remember the theme from The NeverEnding Story -- that's him, too:
Oh, and prior to that, Moroder was merely helping to reinvent disco. In the mid-1970s, he teamed up with Donna Summer for a 17-minute extended orgasm called "Love to Love You Baby." Its success catapulted Moroder (and disco itself) into the mainstream. Songs like Blondie's "Call Me," David Bowie's "Cat People" and Summer's speedfest "I Feel Love" were all Moroder's babies, and he earned three Grammys simply by birthing them. Today, he DJs and spins remixes of his biggest hits for tens of thousands of people a night. Y'know, typical 74-year-old man behavior.
"With as many years as I've been doing this, the 'I can't hear you' thing is starting to get a little bit literal."
Storm Thorgerson Designed Some of the Most Famous Album Covers (By Hand)
You've probably seen these images on one or two dorm room walls in your life:
Music stores too, if you grew up in the Dark Ages
They all came from the mind (and body) of one man: Storm Thorgerson. Yes, that was his real name and yes, he 100 percent lived up to its potential. See, back when people bought albums and didn't just cherry-pick songs to stuff into their iPhones, cover art was almost as important as the music. And few were better at the form than Storm Thorgerson (it would be a crime against humanity not to use his full name at all times).
"I see you enjoy Storm Thorgerson's work. This pleases Storm Thorgerson."
He hated covers that were merely the band posing dreamily, preferring images that would personify the music within. And, since he worked primarily with Pink Floyd (he attended school with several band members -- even for the best of us, it's all about who you know), his images were often appropriately tripped out. What's more, he crafted them by hand, forgoing digital anything in favor of old-fashioned human ingenuity. For Wish You Were Here -- the album cover above featuring a man on fire -- Storm Thorgerson actually set a man on fire.
That's right -- he lined stuntman Ronnie Rondell's suit with rubber cement and then lit it up -- everything was fine until the flames burnt through the cement and exploded in his face. The accident scorched his eyebrows and lashes off, but we're guessing not even he could argue with the result.
"I wouldn't have said no to swimming in a giant fish bowl though."
For A Momentary Lapse of Reason, he collected 700 beds, trucked them out to a nearby beach, made each one to satisfy even the strictest of orphanage heads, and arranged them Tetris-style -- all in real time. It took six hours and 30 people to set up, all for an image that makes sense only when connected to a title that champions making no sense at all.
And still, at least one paranoid pothead will insist the beds are a coded message from the Illuminati.
But Storm Thorgerson wasn't a one-band pony. He also handled Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy (meaning he somehow photographed dozens of naked children without serving 15-to-life for it) and the Scorpions' Lovedrive, featuring an intriguingly novel use for ABC gum.
Hubba Hubba Bubba.
Even as Photoshop became increasingly accessible, Storm Thorgerson continued to craft all his insane ideas by hand, and continued to be awesome at it. For Anthrax's 1995 opus Stomp 442, he collected tons of car scraps and smashed them into a gigantic ball.
He didn't do shit half-ass; that's all we're saying.
Roger Mayer Engineered the Sound of Guitar Rock
When you see old clips of some guitar god up on stage rocking an arena, it's easy to forget that what you're seeing there is, above all, a technological innovation. Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and lots of other electric guitar masters who don't have Jim in their name owe their sound to this nerd:
"It's a nice side gig between my principal duties at Bayside."
That's Roger Mayer, who indirectly crafted just about every song you've ever banged your head or swiveled your hips to. Mayer builds effects pedals -- those little boxes that help guitars make funny noises when the artist stomps on them. Though he didn't invent pedals, he was among the first to not create them by accident. His versatility (treble, fuzz, distortion, twang, jangle, wah, artificial bass) was insane, especially considering how young the industry was at the time.
His first major satisfied customer was Page, who used his fuzz boxes to blast through the first two Led Zeppelin albums and help make heavy rock a thing. But his big break came with Jimi Hendrix, who fell in love with Mayer's Octavia pedal, which could change a note from a guttural growl to a high-pitched squeal and back again -- if you want to hear what we mean, listen to "Purple Haze":
Thanks to that song's success, Mayer immediately became the go-to guy for giving life to as many of Hendrix's acid trip fairy tales as humanly possible. See if you can pick him out of this photo:
Hint: he's the rebellious one.
Reputation now secure, Mayer began customizing the sound of major superstars. He helped Bob Marley fine-tune his sound, resulting in Exodus, an album that inspired generation after generation of white kids to pretend they understood reggae. Branching out from merely revolutionizing guitar, he also built a custom synthesizer for Stevie Wonder, who used it to record albums like Music of My Mind and Innervisions.
And he, too is still out there, crafting customized everything for just about every major rock star on the planet, from Lenny Kravitz to U2 to freaking Nickelback. In a just world, he'd be the one with groupies flocking to his workplace, flinging panties at him the whole time.
"Here's a slight increase in vibrato, for the ladies."
Sam Jackson is damn good at playing Police and White Stripes songs. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
For more people you should probably know, check out 6 Unknown Artists Who Made All of Our Favorite Movie Moments and 7 Inventors You Didn't Know You Wanted to Punch In the Face.