JOHN E. OLIVER (1933-1996)

I walked into a Santa Monica bar one night in 1991 and was introduced to the guitarist leading the band, John E. Oliver. We already had a nodding acquaintance, though I hadn't had the chance until that evening to talk with him at any length. We soon found that we had a lot in common as guitar players and as fans of roots music (John loved the classic country singers - Eddie Arnold, Tex Ritter, Ray Price, Buck Owens, George Jones). After a few minutes, John handed me his guitar and asked me to play the next set. Surprised but game, I ended up playing the rest of the gig while John held court with his many friends in the room. This was his usual routine - he was usually at the center of a group. John had some of the most loyal longtime friendships I've ever seen.

That night began a relationship that ended only with his accidental death in 1996.  I came to see that John had built a sturdy career based on a little-known intersection of music and film: John was by far the most prominent contractor of "sideline" musicians - the musicians that are seen on camera in movies and TV shows.  At that time, when most film and television production was still overseen by the major studios, John owned this field.  He worked with virtually all the major studios; there was no one else of significance competing with him. John and his assistant Suzi Chandler gave work to thousands of musicians over the years.  

A lot of them, including me at first, did not fully understand how much of his work involved composing, pre-recording and producing the music to be played by the musicians appearing on camera.  He began to call me for recording sessions and work as a sideline musician, and eventually to supervise on sideline jobs. Gradually I came to work with him as a partner and John taught me everything he knew about this field. In addition to playing on his sessions, I got to compose, arrange, write songs, and produce tracks for scores of films and TV shows, often because John had quietly told a producer, director, or music supervisor that I had the skills to do the job. He did this for others as well - there's a long list of us that John helped out at the right time with a gig or a referral.

We had great times on location in Nashville, making the movie "The Thing Called Love" for Paramount, a star-crossed project and my jarring introduction to location shooting. We shot in all the holy houses of country music - the Opry, Tootsie's, the Bluebird, Douglas Corner.  One night, a set of bad directions sent us driving over the Kentucky border in a sideways rainstorm looking for a nightclub that we'd been told had a great band (we found it, finally). Many nights were spent jamming with the musicians we met. 

We had the kind of late-night-in-the-studio experiences that almost defy re-telling. One of those nights bled into early morning as first he, then I, tried to overdub a coherent guitar solo to replace one that had been played by a less-than-coherent actor/musician, and now had to be fixed to appear to be in synch.  There was the time in 1993 that he bought one of the first high-tech singers' tools - a digital vocal harmonizer - to fix a TV scene that featured a poorly-recorded choir.  Only hours before the session, he told me that we would be recording in my (tiny) home studio and that he and I would become, with the aid of the harmonizer, the "choir."  My room soon filled with black-suited, highly caffeinated TV execs who insisted on using both of my home's telephone lines simultaneously, as well as their then-exotic cellular phones, and refused to quiet themselves while we tried to learn this new mechanical whatzit and record a track.  Throughout it all, John maintained the bemused detachment of someone who'd simply seen it all. 

In fact, of all that I learned from John, the most important thing was easily the most subtle as well, and I'm not even sure that he knew that he knew this: when the room is enmeshed in chaos, stay quiet; hang back from the tumult. Eventually, someone will ask you what you think. (And, when that happens, you'd better have the best damn idea in the room.)

John loved the life he had made on his Riverside ranch.  He loved being a cowboy and more and more, towards the end he didn't know was coming, he spoke of retiring and leaving the daily workings of the business to me and Suzi.  He resented the time that he had to spend commuting and attending to work in L.A.  He loved riding his horses, fixing things on the ranch, playing guitar and singing the old torch songs that tore at his heart. When he died - ironically, tragically, in an accident while on horseback - he had just finished an album of those old love songs. I and others played our instruments and wrote the arrangements for the fun of it, to have the experience of hanging out in the studio with John and to try to repay the kindnesses that had shown. 

A lot of what I am, and what Visual Music Service has accomplished, I owe to John. After his death many of our clients asked me to carry on, and so I have, mindful of the shoulders I'm standing on and wishing he'd stuck around to teach me a few more things. In the end, of course, you can't ever really repay the favors.  You can pass them on, you can remember, and try to keep the memories from fading.



Suzi Chandler was John's long-time assistant, and one-time wife.  A talented accordionist with her own busy playing career, she spent years at John's side running the office, keeping him and me on time and keeping track of the details and paperwork that made John's office, and, later, mine, run smoothly.  John's business phone number rang in Suzi's apartment and in those days it could ring at pretty much any time of day or night; she was always on call and always ready to work.

After John's death, she worked with me for a few months to help get Visual Music Service - the name was Suzi's idea - off the ground.  John and I had always left the paperwork to her but now I needed to know how to deal with the many forms and contracts, and she taught me in meticulous detail.  Life without John in Los Angeles soon lost its appeal for her, and she retired to a simpler and less chaotic Sedona, AZ, where she remains busy with her hobbies and friends.

I miss John and Suzi every day.