Hugh McCracken, a Studio Musician in High Demand, Dies at 70
Published: April 3, 2013
Hugh McCracken, a virtuoso guitarist who was in such demand as a studio musician that he could afford to turn down Paul McCartney’s invitation to join the band Wings in 1971, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 70.
The cause was leukemia, his wife of 43 years, Holly, said.
Studio musicians toil in near anonymity as they support the artists whose names everyone knows. Their job is not to draw notice but to subtly enhance the stars’ work. But the elite of the music business know the best ones, and Mr. McCracken was always getting calls.
Just a partial list of the hundreds of musicians he accompanied includes Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, B. B. King, Jefferson Airplane, Billy Joel, Laura Nyro, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Carl Perkins, the Monkees, Carly Simon and James Taylor. He recorded with all four Beatles after their breakup. He recorded with Aretha Franklin and Mr. McCartney in different studios on the same day.
Mr. McCracken contributed to a host of hits, including “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Neil Diamond, “Hey 19” by Steely Dan, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon and “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys.
He would improvise his part once he apprehended the drift of a producer’s intention, his wife said. He arrived early the day Roberta Flack was recording “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and began fooling around on his classical guitar as he waited for the session to begin. Joel Dorn, the producer, asked him to play his riff again, and it became the song’s introduction.
“His feel was immaculate,” Leo Sacks, a record producer, said. “It flowed with such ease.”
Rob Mounsey, a veteran session musician and arranger, called Mr. McCracken’s work “elegantly simple — sometimes startlingly simple — and full of feeling.”
Mr. McCracken had worked with Mr. McCartney on his album “Ram” when Mr. McCartney decided to form a new group and asked him to join. He turned down the chance to be an original member of Wings because he did not want to be separated from his children in New Jersey.
Hugh Carmine McCracken was born on March 31, 1942, in Glen Ridge, N.J., and grew up in nearby Hackensack. His father was a plumber who led his own dance band for a while. His mother liked country music and bought Hugh his first guitar, an electric one, when he was 14. He learned to play to impress girls, he said.
His instruction began with a music dictionary that explained terms like note and beat. He learned more by borrowing records from an expansive rhythm-and-blues collection maintained by a mechanic in the rear of a gas station.
Around 16, he formed a band and played local clubs. He dropped out of high school in his junior year to help pay family bills.
His mother was working as a hat checker in a club where the saxophonist King Curtis was playing when she persuaded him to listen to her son play. Mr. Curtis did and hired him for his 1961 album “Trouble in Mind.”
In later years Mr. McCracken toured with artists like Mr. Taylor, Mr. Simon and Linda Ronstadt; wrote advertising jingles; and contributed to movie soundtracks. In addition to lead guitar, he played rhythm guitar, mandolin and harmonica.
Mr. McCracken’s first marriage, to Lynn White, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, the former Holly Mershon, he is survived by his mother, Ethel McCracken; his sons, Scott McCracken and Marc Langanus; his daughters, Jodi McCracken Capitanelli and Kimberly Hope; his sister, Pat Stephens; his brother, the Rev. Don McCracken; and three grandchildren.
Mr. McCracken delighted in telling stories about his famous friends. When he met John Lennon, he recalled, Mr. Lennon said he had heard that Mr. McCracken had worked with Mr. McCartney. “Yes,” Mr. McCracken answered.
“Well,” Mr. Lennon said, “you know that was just an audition to get to me.”