Ry Cooder

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Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder playing.jpg
Cooder in 2009
Background information
Birth nameRyland Peter Cooder
Born (1947-03-15) March 15, 1947 (age 74)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Origin Santa Monica, California
  • Musician
  • songwriter
  • film score composer
  • record producer
Years active1967–present
Associated acts
Website RyCooder.com

Ryland Peter Cooder (born March 15, 1947) [2] is an American musician, songwriter, film score composer and record producer. He is a multi-instrumentalist but is best known for his slide guitar work, his interest in roots music from the United States, and his collaborations with traditional musicians from many countries.


Cooder's solo work draws upon many genres. He has played with John Lee Hooker, Captain Beefheart, Gordon Lightfoot, Ali Farka Touré, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, David Lindley, The Chieftains, The Doobie Brothers, and Carla Olson & the Textones (on record and film). He formed the band Little Village. He also produced the Buena Vista Social Club album (1997), which became a worldwide hit. Wim Wenders directed the documentary film of the same name (1999), which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000.

Cooder was ranked eighth on Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" [3] (David Fricke's Picks). A 2010 ranking by Gibson placed him at number 32. [4]

Early life

Cooder was born in Los Angeles, California, to father Bill Cooder and Italian-American mother Emma Casaroli. [5] He grew up in Santa Monica, California, and graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1964. During the 1960s, he briefly attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon. [6] He began playing the guitar when he was three years old. [7] He has had a glass eye since he was four, when he accidentally stuck a knife in his left eye. [7]



As a young man Cooder performed as part of a pickup trio with Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, in which he played banjo. The trio was not a success, (“Well, son, you’re just not ready”, he remembered Monroe telling him after the first and only set he played with them), but Cooder applied banjo tunings and the three-finger roll to guitar instead. [8]

Cooder first attracted attention playing with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, notably on the 1967 album Safe As Milk , after previously having worked with Taj Mahal and Ed Cassidy in the Rising Sons. At a vital "warm-up" performance at the Mt. Tamalpais Festival (1967-06-10/11) shortly before the scheduled Monterey Pop Festival (1967-06-16/18), the band began to play "Electricity" and Don Van Vliet froze, straightened his tie, then walked off the 10 ft (3.0 m) stage and landed on manager Bob Krasnow. He later claimed he had seen a girl in the audience turn into a fish, with bubbles coming from her mouth. [9] This aborted any opportunity of breakthrough success at Monterey, as Cooder immediately decided he could no longer work with Van Vliet, [10] effectively quitting both the event and the band on the spot. Cooder also played with Randy Newman, including on 12 Songs . [11] Van Dyke Parks worked with Newman and Cooder during the 1960s. Parks arranged Cooder's "One Meatball" according to Parks' 1984 interview by Bob Claster.

Cooder was a session musician on various recording sessions with The Rolling Stones in 1968 and 1969, and his contributions appear on the albums Let It Bleed (Yank Rachell-style mandolin on "Love in Vain"), and Sticky Fingers , on which he contributed the slide guitar on "Sister Morphine". During this period, Cooder joined with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and longtime Rolling Stones sideman Nicky Hopkins to record Jamming with Edward! . Cooder also played slide guitar for the 1970 film soundtrack Performance , which contained Jagger's first solo single, "Memo from Turner". The 1975 compilation album Metamorphosis features an uncredited Cooder contribution on Bill Wyman's "Downtown Suzie".

Cooder also collaborated with Lowell George of Little Feat, playing bottleneck guitar on the original version of "Willin'". [12]


Throughout the 1970s, Cooder released a series of Warner Bros. Records albums that showcased his guitar work, initially on the Reprise Records label, before being reassigned to the main Warners label along with many of Reprise's artists when the company retired the imprint. Cooder explored bygone musical genres and found old-time recordings which he then personalized and updated. Thus, on his breakthrough album, Into the Purple Valley , he chose unusual instrumentations and arrangements of blues, gospel, calypso, and country songs (giving a tempo change to the cowboy ballad "Billy the Kid"). The album opened with the song "How Can You Keep on Moving (Unless You Migrate Too)" by Agnes "Sis" Cunningham about the Okies who were not welcomed when they migrated west to escape the Dust Bowl in the 1930s – to which Cooder gave a rousing-yet-satirical march accompaniment. In 1970 he collaborated with Ron Nagle and performed on his Bad Rice album released on Warner Brothers. His later 1970s albums (with the exception of Jazz , which explored ragtime/vaudeville) do not fall under a single genre description, but his self-titled first album could be described as blues; Into the Purple Valley, Boomer's Story , and Paradise and Lunch as folk and blues; Chicken Skin Music and Showtime as a mix of Tex-Mex and Hawaiian; Bop Till You Drop as 1950s R&B; and Borderline and Get Rhythm as rock-based. His 1979 album Bop Till You Drop was the first popular music album released that was recorded digitally, using the early 3M digital mastering recorder.[ citation needed ] It yielded his biggest hit, an R&B cover version of Elvis Presley's 1960s recording "Little Sister".

Cooder is credited on Van Morrison's 1979 album, Into the Music , for slide guitar on the song "Full Force Gale". He also played guitar on Judy Collins' 1970 concert tour, and is featured on Living , the 1971 live album recorded during that tour. He also learned from and performed with Gabby Pahinui and "Atta" Isaacs in Hawaii during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the early 1970s. He is also credited for guitars on several 1971 recordings by Nancy Sinatra that were produced by Andy Wickman and Lenny Waronker – "Is Anybody Goin' To San Antone," "Hook & Ladder," and "Glory Road." Cooder is credited as a mandolin player on Gordon Lightfoot's Don Quixote album in 1972.


Cooder has worked as a studio musician and has also scored many film soundtracks including the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas (1984). Cooder based this soundtrack and title song "Paris, Texas" on Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)", which he described as "The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music." [13] Musician Dave Grohl has declared Cooder's score for Paris, Texas one of his favorite albums. [14] In 2018 Cooder told BBC Radio 4 listeners: “[Wenders] did a very good job at capturing the ambience out there in the desert, just letting the microphones and the nagra machine roll and get tones and sound from the desert itself, which I discovered was E♭, was in the key of E♭ – that’s the wind, you know, was nice. So we tuned everything to E♭." [15]

"Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)" was also the basis for Cooder's song "Powis Square" for the movie Performance . His other film work includes Walter Hill's The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981), Streets of Fire (1984), Brewster's Millions (1985), Johnny Handsome , [16] Last Man Standing (1996), Hill's Trespass (1992) and Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (1998). Cooder along with Arlen Roth dubbed all slide and regular blues guitar parts in the 1986 film Crossroads , a take on blues legend Robert Johnson. In 1988, Cooder produced the album by his longtime backing vocalists Bobby King and Terry Evans on Rounder Records titled Live and Let Live. He contributed his slide guitar work to every track. He also plays extensively on their 1990 self-produced Rounder release Rhythm, Blues, Soul & Grooves. Cooder's music also appeared on two episodes of the television program Tales From the Crypt; "The Man Who Was Death" and "The Thing From the Grave." [17]

In 1984, Cooder played on two songs on the debut album by Carla Olson & the Textones, Midnight Mission – "Carla's Number One is to Survive" and the previously unreleased Bob Dylan song "Clean Cut Kid". Shortly thereafter he was writing and recording the music for the film Blue City and asked the band to appear in the film performing. (He took them in the studio and produced "You Can Run" which he also played on.)

In 1985, Cooder was a guest artist on the song "Rough Edges" from Kim Carnes' album Barking at Airplanes . Kim named her son Ry as a tribute to Ry Cooder. He played electric slide guitar on The Beach Boys' 1988 hit "Kokomo."

Also in 1988, Cooder produced and featured in the Les Blank-directed concert documentary film Ry Cooder & The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces: Let's Have a Ball where he plays in collaboration with a selection of musicians famous in their various musical fields. [18] The following year, he played a janitor in the Jim Henson series The Ghost of Faffner Hall , in the episode "Music Is More Than Technique". [19]


In the early 1990s Cooder collaborated on two world music "crossover" albums, which blended the traditional American musical genres that Cooder has championed throughout his career with the contemporary improvised music of India and Africa. For A Meeting by the River (1993), which also featured his son Joachim Cooder on percussion, he teamed with Hindustani classical musician V.M. Bhatt, a virtuoso of the Mohan Veena (a modified 20-string archtop guitar of Bhatt's own invention) and Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari also known as Pinky Tabla Player. In 1995 he teamed with Malian multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Toure on the album Talking Timbuktu , which he also produced; the album also featured longtime Cooder collaborator Jim Keltner on drums, veteran blues guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, jazz bassist John Patitucci and African percussionists and musicians including Hamma Sankare and Oumar Toure. Both albums won the Grammy Award for 'Best World Music Album' in 1994 and 1995 respectively. Cooder also worked with Tuvan throat singers for the score to the 1993 film Geronimo: An American Legend .

In 1995 he performed in The Wizard of Oz in Concert: Dreams Come True , a musical performance of the popular story at the Lincoln Center in New York to benefit the Children's Defense Fund. The performance was originally broadcast on both TBS and TNT. It was issued on CD and video in 1996.

In the late 1990s Cooder played a significant role in the increased appreciation of traditional Cuban music, due to his collaboration as producer of the Buena Vista Social Club (1997) recording, which became a worldwide hit and revived the careers of some of the greatest surviving exponents of 20th century Cuban music. Wim Wenders, who had previously directed 1984's Paris, Texas , directed a documentary film of the musicians involved, Buena Vista Social Club (1999), which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000. [20] The enterprise cost him a $25,000 fine for violating the United States embargo against Cuba. [21] [22]


Cooder's 2005 album Chávez Ravine was touted by his record label as being "a post-World War II-era American narrative of 'cool cats', radios, UFO sightings, J. Edgar Hoover, red scares, and baseball". [23] The record is a tribute to the long-gone Los Angeles Latino enclave known as Chávez Ravine. Using real and imagined historical characters, Cooder and friends created an album that recollects various aspects of the poor but vibrant hillside Chicano community which no longer exists. Cooder says, "Here is some music for a place you don’t know, up a road you don’t go. Chávez Ravine, where the sidewalk ends." [23] Drawing from the various musical strains of Los Angeles, including conjunto, R&B, Latin pop, and jazz, Cooder and friends conjure the ghosts of Chávez Ravine and Los Angeles at mid-century. On this fifteen-track album, sung in Spanish and English, Cooder is joined by East L.A. legends like Chicano music patriarch Lalo Guerrero, Pachuco boogie king Don Tosti, Thee Midniters front man Little Willie G, and Ersi Arvizu, of The Sisters and El Chicano.

Cooder's next record was released in 2007. Entitled My Name Is Buddy , it tells the story of Buddy Red Cat, who travels and sees the world in the company of his like-minded friends, Lefty Mouse and Rev. Tom Toad. The entire recording is a parable of the working class progressivism [24] of the first half of the American twentieth century, and even has a song featuring executed unionist Joe Hill. My Name Is Buddy was accompanied by a booklet featuring a story and illustration (by Vincent Valdez) for each track, providing additional context to Buddy's adventures.

Cooder produced and performed on an album for Mavis Staples entitled We'll Never Turn Back , which was released on April 24, 2007. The concept album focused on Gospel songs of the civil rights movement and also included two new original songs by Cooder. [25]

Cooder's album I, Flathead was released on June 24, 2008. It is the completion of his California trilogy. Based on the drag racing culture of the early 1960s, the album is set on the desert salt flats in southern California. The disc was also released as a deluxe edition with stories written by Cooder to accompany the music.

In late 2009, Cooder toured Japan, New Zealand and Australia with Nick Lowe, performing some of Lowe's songs and a selection of Cooder's own material, mainly from the 1970s. Joaquim Cooder (Ry's son) provided percussion, and Juliette Commagere and Alex Lilly contributed backing vocals.

The song "Diaraby", which Cooder recorded with Ali Farka Touré, is used as the theme to The World's Geo Quiz. The World is a radio show distributed by Public Radio International.

In 2009, Cooder performed in The People Speak , a documentary feature film that uses dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries, and speeches of everyday Americans, based on historian Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States . Cooder performed with Bob Dylan and Van Dyke Parks on the documentary broadcast on December 13, 2009 on the History Channel. They played "Do Re Mi" and reportedly a couple of other Guthrie songs that were excluded from the final edit. He also traveled with the band Los Tigres del Norte and recorded the 2010 album San Patricio with the Chieftains, Lila Downs, Liam Neeson, Linda Ronstadt, Van Dyke Parks, Los Cenzontles, and Los Tigres. [26] [27]


In June 2010, responding to the passage of Arizona SB 1070, he released the single "Quicksand", which tells the story of Mexicans attempting to emigrate to Arizona through the desert. [28] [29] Cooder's critically acclaimed [30] [31] new album Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down , released on August 30, 2011, contains politically charged songs such as "No Banker Left Behind" [32] which was inspired by a Robert Scheer column. [33]

In 2011, he published a collection of short stories called Los Angeles Stories , written about people living in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s. The book's characters are mostly talented or skilled, clever or hardworking people living in humble circumstances. With story titles such as "La vida es un sueño" and "Kill me, por favor", the collection's stories often have a Hispanic theme, and the book deals partially with Latinos living in Los Angeles during this time.

Ry Cooder playing the electric bouzouki while performing with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, McGlohon Theater, Charlotte, NC, August 19, 2015 Ry Cooder 19Aug2015 (2).jpg
Ry Cooder playing the electric bouzouki while performing with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, McGlohon Theater, Charlotte, NC, August 19, 2015

An American Songwriter article in 2012 suggested that Cooder's recent string of solo albums have often taken on an allegorical, sociopolitical bent. Music journalist Evan Schlansky said that "Cooder’s latest effort, Election Special (released August 21, 2012, on Nonesuch/Perro Verde) doesn’t mince words. It’s designed to send a message to the “'deacons in the High Church of the Next Dollar'.” [34] The album (Election Special) was composed as his part in support of the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama in the 2012 American Presidential Election.

On September 10, 2013, Cooder released Live in San Francisco , featuring the Corridos Famosos band, including Joachim Cooder on drums; Robert Francis on bass; vocalists Terry Evans, Arnold McCuller, and Juliette Commagere; Flaco Jiménez on accordion; and the Mexican brass band La Banda Juvenil. The album was recorded during a two-night run at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, August 31 and September 1, 2011. It is Cooder's first official live recording since Show Time in 1977 (which had also been recorded at Great American Music Hall). [35]

In 2015, Cooder toured with Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White and other members of The Whites with their “Music for The Good People” show. [36] The tour continued through into 2016.

On May 11, 2018, Cooder released his first solo album in six years entitled The Prodigal Son . [37] The subsequent tour featured opening performances by Cooder's son, Joachim Cooder, who also accompanied his father on drums.[ citation needed ]




Solo albums




As guest musician


Written works

Related Research Articles

Slide guitar Guitar technique

Slide guitar is a technique for playing the guitar that is often used in blues music. It involves playing a guitar while holding a hard object against the strings, creating the opportunity for glissando effects and deep vibratos that reflect characteristics of the human singing voice. It typically involves playing the guitar in the traditional position with the use of a slide fitted on one of the guitarist's fingers. The slide may be a metal or glass tube, such as the neck of a bottle. The term bottleneck was historically used to describe this type of playing. The strings are typically plucked while the slide is moved over the strings to change the pitch. The guitar may also be placed on the player's lap and played with a hand-held bar.

<i>Buena Vista Social Club</i> (film)

Buena Vista Social Club is a 1999 documentary film directed by Wim Wenders about the music of Cuba. It is named for a danzón that became the title piece of the album Buena Vista Social Club. The film is an international co-production of Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Cuba.

Buena Vista Social Club Ensemble of Cuban musicians

Buena Vista Social Club is an ensemble of Cuban musicians established in 1996 to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba. The project was organized by World Circuit executive Nick Gold, produced by American guitarist Ry Cooder and directed by Juan de Marcos González. They named the group after the homonymous members' club in the Buenavista quarter of Havana, a popular music venue in the 1940s. To showcase the popular styles of the time, such as son, bolero and danzón, they recruited a dozen veteran musicians, many of whom had been retired for many years.

Afro-Cuban All Stars

Afro-Cuban All Stars is a Cuban band led by Juan de Marcos González. Their music is a mix of all the styles of Cuban music, including bolero, chachachá, salsa, son montuno, timba, guajira, danzón, rumba and abakua.

Ibrahim Ferrer Cuban singer

Ibrahim Ferrer was a Cuban singer who played with Los Bocucos for nearly forty years. He also performed with Conjunto Sorpresa, Chepín y su Orquesta Oriental and Mario Patterson. After his retirement in 1991, he was brought back in the studio to record with the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club in March 1996. He then toured internationally with these revival groups and recorded several solo albums for World Circuit before his death in 2005.

<i>Buena Vista Social Club</i> (album) 1997 studio album by Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club is the debut album by the eponymous ensemble of Cuban musicians directed by Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder. It was recorded at Havana's EGREM studios in March 1996 and released on September 16, 1997, on World Circuit. Despite its success, it remains the only standard studio album exclusively credited to the Buena Vista Social Club.

Rising Sons

Rising Sons was an American, Los Angeles, California-based blues rock and folk music band, which was founded in 1965. Their initial career was short-lived, but the group found retrospective fame for launching the careers of singer Taj Mahal and guitarist Ry Cooder.

<i>Safe as Milk</i> 1967 studio album by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band

Safe as Milk is the debut studio album by American rock group Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, released in June 1967 by Buddah Records. A heavily blues-influenced work, the album featured a 20-year-old Ry Cooder, who played guitar and wrote some of the arrangements.

The Magic Band Captain Beefhearts backing band

The Magic Band were the backing band of Captain Beefheart between 1967 and 1982. The rotating lineup featured dozens of performers, many of whom became known by nicknames given to them by Beefheart.

Jeffrey Ralph Cotton is an American rock guitarist, known for his work as a member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Cotton first came to attention as guitarist with Merrell and the Exiles, who had a few local hits in 1964 in the Los Angeles area. He subsequently joined Blues in a Bottle, which also featured future Magic Band members Mark Boston, Bill Harkleroad and John French. He was recruited into the Magic Band in 1967 as a replacement for Ry Cooder.

<i>In the Heart of the Moon</i> 2005 studio album by Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté

In the Heart of the Moon is a 2005 record by Malian musicians Ali Farka Touré on the guitar and providing vocals and Toumani Diabaté on the kora. The album was recorded in the "Toit de Bamako" conference room on the top floor of the Hotel Mandé overlooking the Niger River in Bamako, Mali. It is the first in a three-part series released on World Circuit Records entitled "The Hotel Mandé Sessions" followed by Savane and Boulevard de l'Independence. The album's title is derived from Touré's own more lengthy descriptive title for the recording session; "A very important meeting in the realm at the heart of the moon."

<i>Running Down the Road</i> 1969 studio album by Arlo Guthrie

Running Down the Road is the second studio album by American folk singer Arlo Guthrie. Guthrie's version of the traditional folk tune "Stealin'" was featured in the film Two-Lane Blacktop. The cover shows the artist upon a Triumph TR6 Trophy motorcycle which is also pictured in the album's 'gate'.

<i>Washington County</i> (album) 1970 studio album by Arlo Guthrie

Washington County is a 1970 album by the American folk singer Arlo Guthrie. It peaked at #33 on the Billboard charts on December 4, 1970, and number 28 in Australia.

Manuel Galbán Cuban musician

Manuel Galbán was a Grammy-winning Cuban guitarist, pianist and arranger, most notable for his work with Los Zafiros, Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club. One of two surviving members of Los Zafiros, he died on July 7, 2011 of cardiac arrest at his home in Havana, Cuba.

Ali Farka Touré

Ali Ibrahim "Ali Farka" Touré was a Malian singer and multi-instrumentalist, and one of the African continent's most internationally renowned musicians. His music blends traditional Malian music and its derivative, North American blues and is considered a pioneer of African desert blues. Touré was ranked number 76 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" and number 37 on Spin magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".

<i>A Meeting by the River</i> 1993 studio album by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt

A Meeting by the River is an album recorded by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt; it was recorded in September 1992 and released in April 1993 through the record label Water Lily Acoustics. This improvised, collaborative album features Cooder on slide guitar and Bhatt on the Mohan veena, a stringed instrument created by Bhatt. A Meeting by the River was produced by Kavichandran Alexander and Jayant Shah, engineered by Alexander, and mastered by Kevin Michael Gray and Paul Stubblebine. It peaked at number four on Billboard's Top World Music Albums chart, and earned Cooder and Bhatt Grammy Awards for Best World Music Album at the 36th Grammy Awards (1994). The album is included in Tom Moon's 2008 book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

<i>Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down</i> 2011 studio album by Ry Cooder

Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is the fourteenth studio album by American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ry Cooder. It was released on August 30, 2011, by Nonesuch Records.

<i>AfroCubism</i> 2010 studio album by AfroCubism

AfroCubism is a Grammy-nominated album featuring musical collaborations between musicians from Mali and Cuba. It was released in 2010.

<i>Election Special</i> 2012 studio album by Ry Cooder

Election Special is a 2012 album by American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ry Cooder. After his 2011 album Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, Cooder continued writing topical and storyline-inspired songs. Displeased with the Republican Party and its financial supporters, he also wanted to write an album that would address listeners during the United States presidential election of 2012, which he believed to be a critical event in the country's history. His fifteenth studio album overall, Election Special was recorded mostly at Drive-By Studios in North Hollywood and produced by Cooder.

Gil Bernal (1931-2011) was a singer and a session musician. His saxophone can be heard on recordings such as "Searchin'" by The Coasters. In the 1950s he played on Duane Eddy's 1958 album Have 'Twangy' Guitar Will Travel. In later years, he played on Warren Zevon's 2003 album The Wind and the Chávez Ravine album by Ry Cooder.


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Preceded by
Kenny Vaughan
AMA Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist
Succeeded by
Larry Campbell