Louie Shelton has played on more hit songs than pretty much any other guitar player in history but it’s likely you’ve never heard of him.
As a session musician, Shelton has worked with some of the greatest acts of the 20th century — from Ella Fitzgerald to Marvin Gaye, from James Brown and John Lennon to The Jackson Five.
But these days he’s pumping his creative expertise into nurturing a generation of young Australian Baha’i musicians.
From the Monkees to James Brown
Shelton’s big break came in 1966 with the made-for-TV band The Monkees.
It was Shelton that cooked up the now-famous opening guitar riff on their debut single Last Train to Clarksville.
“There was a group of us players sitting there for our first rehearsal to work up these Monkees tunes, and they described to me what kind of thing they needed for their first record,” he says.
“And this lick came out and I said, ‘what about this?'”
A number one hit in the US and Canada, Last Train to Clarksville cemented Shelton’s place among the top ranks of Los Angeles session musicians: a loose-knit group known as the Wrecking Crew who had already garnered great success on tracks like Dylan’s Mr Tamborine Man.
It was through his work with The Monkees that Louie Shelton got his first big break. (Getty Images: Chris Walter)
With the Wrecking Crew, Shelton went on to help craft classic songs for The Jackson Five (I Want You Back, ABC, I’ll Be There), Boz Scaggs (Lowdown), Lionel Richie (Hello) and scores of others including James Brown (Every Day I Have the Blues).
The James Brown session was especially poignant for Shelton, who was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in America’s south, in 1941.
“In those days there was total segregation … if you were black you lived on that side of town, if you were white you lived on the other side of town,” he says.
“There was no sharing restaurants. Blacks couldn’t even stay in a hotel that was white hotel.
“If someone like James Brown came to town they had to stay in a black motel.”
It was the injustice of segregation and the oppression African-Americans experienced on a daily basis that inspired Shelton eventually to become a Baha’i.
The Baha’i faith: ‘a very modern-day religion’
Founded in Iran in 1844, the Baha’i faith has around six million believers worldwide, with about 20,000 in Australia.
Baha’is follow the teachings of their prophet Baha’u’llah (1817-92) and believe there is only one God and that all world religions, including their own, stem from the same divine source.
The faith teaches a series of social principles that promote, among other things, gender equality, universal education, and consistent global human rights standards.
“The thing about the Baha’i faith that made sense to me was that one of the principles is the abolishment of all kinds of prejudice,” Shelton says.
“It gave me a sense that my feelings were right and that a lot of the crap that I had witnessed growing up was not right.
“So that’s how I relate to the Baha’i faith, as giving me knowledge of things that apply to this day and age, not things that applied 2000 years ago. It’s a very modern-day religion.”
In the 1970s, Shelton moved into production. He helped fellow Baha’is, the duo Seals & Crofts, make five gold-selling albums, including 1972’s Summer Breeze, which stayed in the US music charts for 18 weeks.
Mentoring young Australian musicians
In 1984, tired of life in LA’s fast-lane, Shelton and his family relocated to Australia where he has continued recording and producing music for bands like Noiseworks and Southern Sons.
He’s also still playing gigs with his band Louie Shelton’s Bluesland.
In 2007, Shelton was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville and in 2013 was an inductee into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame.
To many in Australia, Shelton’s name is still relatively unknown. But his recent work mentoring young Baha’i musicians has helped his reputation spread within the religious community.
One of the musicians that Shelton works with: Shadi Toloui-Wallace. (Supplied: Shadi Toloui-Wallace)
Baha’i musicians are encouraged to set their sacred texts to contemporary music with the words of Baha’u’llah usually sung in one of three languages: English, Arabic and Farsi.
Shelton’s production experience has helped nurture a new generation of Baha’i singer-songwriters such as Brisbane’s Shadi Toloui-Wallace, whose mother Shidan Toloui-Wallace is a renowned Persian chanter, and the Gold Coast-based Chinese-Australian musician Natasha Chiang.
“With these young Baha’i artists … I come in and I help them write their songs, do their music tracks and help them get the best performance out of them I can,” he says.
It’s been worthwhile because the stuff has actually turned out very good.”