When Ry Cooder famously made his debut appearance at Glastonbury, playing on the Pyramid stage on a damp day in June 1990, he chose not to be backed by a band but by a second guitarist who came on sporting bright red trousers, and hair and sideburns that were very long, even by rock music standards. The duo perched on stools, surrounded by a dozen guitars, mandolins or bouzoukis, and proceeded to prove that they were both virtuoso players who could sound as thrilling as any amplified band as they switched from the atmospheric Paris, Texas to songs made famous by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly or Jerry Lee Lewis.
Cooder’s companion, David Lindley, who has died aged 78, was a musicians’ musician. He may never have been as well known as those he played with, but he was one of the most sought-after session players in the US. Best known for his collaborations with Cooder and Jackson Browne, he also recorded with an astonishing list of musicians that included Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Iggy Pop, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, John Prine, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Ben Harper, Rickie Lee Jones and Bruce Springsteen. They wanted to work with Lindley not just because he was a great musician who could play almost any stringed instrument, from guitar and fiddle to slide guitar and mandolin through to oud and bouzouki, but because he knew how to interpret the mood of a song, adding texture and emotion without ever dominating.
His own musical taste was far more varied than the rock or singer-songwriter styles of the stars for whom he acted as sideman. When leading his own band, El Rayo-X, he was able to branch out and demonstrate his sense of humour as he explored blues, funk and reggae. Like Cooder, he was fascinated by musical styles from around the world, and some of his most original recordings were with musicians from Madagascar, Hawaii, Norway and Jordan.
Born in San Marino, Los Angeles, he was the son of Margaret (nee Wells) and Jack Lindley, a lawyer and music fan. He grew up listening to his father’s eclectic record collection, which included music from the Middle East and Asia, and he learned to play his father’s ukulele, then the banjo. While at La Salle high school in Pasadena he formed a bluegrass band, the Mad Mountain Ramblers, and then the Dry City Scat Band, which played around the Los Angeles folk clubs and at Disneyland. He was still a teenager when he first won the annual Topanga Canyon banjo and fiddle contest, but was asked to stop competing after he had won it five times.
Lindley’s reputation was growing fast, and in 1967 he landed his first major session, playing on Cohen’s debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen. By then he had formed his first electric band, Kaleidoscope, along with Chris Darrow, with whom he had played in the Scat Band. They released their first, wildly experimental album, Side Trips, in 1967, mixing Middle Eastern music with rock, cajun, country and bluegrass, but, though they were praised by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, their unique brand of “psychedelic folk” didn’t sell records. They broke up in 1970, after recording four albums, and Lindley moved to England to work with the singer-guitarist Terry Reid, who had famously turned down Led Zeppelin.
Moving back to the US, Lindley teamed up with Browne, with whom he spent the rest of the 1970s, touring and recording as a key member of his band, playing acoustic and electric guitar, slide guitar and fiddle. He perfectly complemented many of Browne’s best-loved songs, playing lap steel on Running on Empty and fiddle on Before the Deluge. Browne called him “my hero”, and other musicians asked him to play on their records when Browne did not require his services. His recordings during that period included three albums for Ronstadt, including her first No 1 album, the exquisite Heart Like a Wheel (1974), two with Rod Stewart, including his bestselling Atlantic Crossing (1975), along with albums with Crosby & Nash, Taylor, Warren Zevon and Parton.
He first recorded with Cooder on Jazz (1978) and Bop Till You Drop (1979), after which the duo began performing live together, touring in Australia and Japan. A 1979 live radio recording from Osaka was released on CD in 2021. On their tour in 1995 they were joined onstage by Cooder’s son, Joachim, and Lindley’s folksinger daughter, Rosanne, and released the album Cooder/Lindley Family Live at the Vienna Opera House.
After leaving Browne’s band in 1980, Lindley moved from sideman to band leader with El Rayo-X, which he called “more or less a party band”, and in which he matched his own songs along with a bravely varied assortment of old favourites. The band’s self-titled debut set in 1981 included a glorious, furious treatment of KC Douglas’s Mercury Blues, while Win This Record, released the following year, included the Toots and the Maytals song Premature. Mr Dave (1985) included his own reggae composition Alien Invasion, and the band’s final album Very Greasy (1988) continued to demonstrate his fascination with the Caribbean. Produced by Ronstadt, it included Ronstadt adding harmony vocals on Lord Kitchener’s calypso classic Gimme da Ting (on which Lindley played guitar and kora) and a reggae reworking of Zevon’s Werewolves of London.
While running the band, he still managed time to visit London to play alongside Richard Thompson and Rory Gallagher, and revive his love of flamenco with Juan Martin, at a Guitarists Night concert in March 1984. And he continued his session work, including albums for Browne, and for Emmylou Harris, Ronstadt and Parton on Trio (1987). In 1990 he worked with Dylan on Under the Red Sky.
Still keen to expand his musical range, he travelled to Madagascar with the guitarist Henry Kaiser to record the musicians and unique instruments of the vast island off the east coast of Africa. The aim was to present local stars to an international audience, but Lindley and Kaiser joined in several of the sessions. The resulting albums, A World Out of Time, Vols 1 and 2 (1992-93), included Lindley playing slide guitar with the traditional band Tarika Sammy and joining guitarist Rossy on a reworking of I Fought the Law, the Crickets song popularised by the Clash.
Moving on to Hawaii, this time in the company of Cooder, he recorded with the Pahinui Bros (1992) on a set that included a Hawaiian reggae treatment of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. Further musical travels included recordings in Norway with Kaiser for The Sweet Sunny North (1994). In 1994-95 he also recorded with the Jordanian oud player Hani Naser, and between 2000 and 2004 with the reggae percussionist Wally Ingram. Their third album together, Twango Bango III (2003) included When a Guy Gets Boobs, a comment on the American diet. “I have always liked songwriters like Warren Zevon who could write something goofy and also really serious,” he explained.
In 2006 he was reunited with Browne for a short Spanish tour on which they were backed by a flamenco percussionist. Love Is Strange, a live album recorded on that tour, was released in 2010, when Browne and Lindley toured Europe and the US, and played at Glastonbury, with a set that included Running On Empty and Mercury Blues. In the same year Lindley also worked with Bruce Springsteen on The Promise. His own final solo album, Big Twang, was released in 2007.
Lindley had a wild stage image, thanks to his colourful clothes and long hair, but he never favoured a rock’n’roll lifestyle, and would often retreat to his hotel room to rehearse after a show. He hated being disturbed in the morning by hotel workers, and would imitate a dog, scratching at the door and barking, to keep them away.
He lived in Claremont, California, in a house filled with musical instruments, and was married to Joan Darrow, the sister of his Kaleidoscope colleague Chris Darrow. He is survived by Joan and Rosanne.
• David Lindley, musician, born 21 March 1944; died 3 March 2023