Video: The Hit Men are coming to Morristown
By Kevin Coughlin
Jimmy Ryan has a magical past: Hit records and screaming fans in the ’60s, tours with Carly Simon, studio time with Paul McCartney and Elton John, and on and on.
Think of them as a sideman supergroup. The Hit Men may not be household names, but their names are on 85 albums by many of the biggest stars from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
“I don’t mean to brag, but we made these records,” said Ryan, a guitarist whose credits include gold albums with Cat Stevens and Jim Croce.
His fellow Hit Men are Lee Shapiro and Gerry Polci (who sang the hit Oh What a Night) from Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons; Larry Gates, who has worked with Janis Ian, Rick Derringer, Carole King and Phoebe Snow; and Russ Velazquez, whose credits include projects with Sting, the Ramones and LL Cool J.
Ryan, a Plainfield native and alumnus of Westfield High School, first tasted success as a college student in a band called The Critters, which landed hits with Younger Girls, Mr. Dieingly Sad and Don’t Let the Rain Fall Down on Me.
It was the era of the Beatles and the Stones, and screaming girls were the norm at every concert.
“Yeah, it was kind of cool. But it was crazy. It could be dangerous. They would tear you apart,” said Ryan, 69.
After a Critters show in Hartford, he made the mistake of cracking open his limousine window. A fan reached in and plucked away his eyeglasses–which he needed to get around.
There was no hazard pay, either. The Critters signed a standard record deal for the ’60s: The Kama Sutra label paid them 3 percent of gross sales.
“It cost us more than 3 percent to make the records,” Ryan said. “It’s far better with The Hit Men. And the funny thing is, the same people are coming to our concerts. Even though they are in their 50s and up, they’re dancing in the aisles and standing on the seats.”
This tour is the most fun he’s had in music, he said, aside from his time with Carly Simon. They have been friends since she was a secretary dating his boss at a guitar shop.
Ryan has backed Simon on two HBO specials, and played for her on four gold records and another that went platinum.
“She’s an incredibly wonderful person,” to the point of insisting he appear right up front with her on stage, Ryan said.
Although he agonizes over every note of his own productions, he wastes no time getting down to business as a session man, when the studio clock is ticking.
His distinctive bottleneck slide lead on Simon’s You’re So Vain was only a “sketch,” he said. When he asked to record a second take, producer Richard Perry summoned him into the control room and wisely informed him: “We’re done.”
ROCKING WITH SIR PAUL
Through Carly Simon, Ryan also had a pair of memorable encounters with one of his heroes, Paul McCartney.
Simon, Ryan and a couple of other singers were struggling to work out backing harmonies for Simon at producer George Martin’s AIR Studios in London. In walked McCartney, who was there to record Live and Let Die.
“Paul sang with us, and arranged the vocal parts,” said Ryan, sounding astonished decades later.
He also remembers the relationship between the former Beatle and the legendary producer, who died last week at age 90.
McCartney asked Martin to re-arrange something in Live and Let Die, but Martin said it would not work. Artists can grow testy in such situations, Ryan said.
“But Paul was 1,000 percent respectful of [Martin’s] authority. It was like watching a benevolent father talk to his son. The respect was palpable,” Ryan said.
Soon afterwards, Ryan played a gig — by accident– with McCartney and Wings at London’s Hard Rock Cafe. Wings guitarist Henry McCullough, a friend of Ryan’s, had imbibed a bit too freely. Too wobbly to perform, he thrust his Les Paul instrument into Ryan’s hands.
“Paul looked at me and it was like, ‘What the hell,'” recounted Ryan, who played the concert… but never got his Wings. “Unfortunately for me, Henry sobered up.”
Playing with rock’s royalty never has fazed Ryan. His “cold, dark fear” is the threat of having to find a day job, as seismic changes reshape the music business.
So far, Ryan has staved off that dire fate with a remarkable knack for self-reinvention.
He has penned jingles — blame him for Gotta go to Mo’s, the once-ubiquitous campaign of a sporting goods chain. He has scored dozens of films, including Searching for Wallenberg. He has cranked out commercials. And music for the Winter Olympics, The Pluto Files and several news networks.
Curiously, Ryan’s only other jitters– which years of yoga and meditation haven’t quite tamed–occur before shows with The Hit Men.
After careers as super sidemen, they all have reinvented themselves:
“We’re the attraction.”
The Hit Men perform such favorites as Oh What a Night, Sherry, Peace Train, Leroy Brown, Loco Motion, Anticipation and Mony Mony at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, 8 pm, Thursday, March 24, 2016. Tickets: $39-$59. At 100 South St. Call 973-539-8008.