Ry Cooder

Across The BorderlineGet Rhythm
Dark End Of The StreetBoomer's Story
GuantanamoElection Special
Little SisterBop Till You Drop
Onda CallejeroChavéz Ravine
The Sands Of MexicoSan Patricio
Secret LoveMambo Sinuendo
Tamp 'em Up SolidParadise And Lunch
Teardrops Will FallInto The Purple Valley
Why Don't You Try MeBorderline


Ry Cooder playlist



Contributor: Peter Viney

Ry Cooder has had several different musical careers, and his instrumental work as a guitarist, soundtrack composer and world music collaborator could easily be separated from his mainstream vocal works, but that would give two Toppermosts.

The career start in 1966 with The Rising Sons with Taj Mahal, a pairing of musicians who were both fascinated by curating Americana and the blues. Candy Man is the track to sample. He then worked on early albums by Little Feat and Captain Beefheart. Ry Cooder went to London and recorded Memo For Turner with Mick Jagger for the soundtrack of Performance, played on Let It Bleed and the single of Honky Tonk Women, and was considered as a potential Rolling Stone. He claims they recorded two hours of him demonstrating his riffs, declined to give him a job, then used the riffs as the basis for much of Exile On Main Street. He became the session guitarist of choice, working with Randy Newman and Crazy Horse.

Next came his solo career as a singer/guitarist/bandleader/songwriter, with a series of albums on Reprise, much of the material on which was esoteric covers of researched old material. It started with Ry Cooder in 1970 (with Van Dyke Parks on piano), followed by Into The Purple Valley. That is my favourite Ry Cooder album of all, with its gatefold cover art being part of the attraction. All the songs are covers, mostly of obscure material. Teardrops Will Fall, the lilting calypso FDR In Trinidad, How Can You Keep On Moving, Billy The Kid and On A Monday stand out, but there are no weak points. And it was my Christmas present that year. Boomer’s Story followed with the instrumental version of Dark End Of The Street. Paradise And Lunch in 1974 featured him on guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, banjo, and a variety of exotic stringed instruments. His version of It’s All Over Now is a reggaefied riposte to The Rolling Stones ripping him off, while Jesus On The Mainline brings in a large band.

Chicken Skin Music was the first of many excursions into Hispanic styles with Flaco Jimenez on accordion with other Tex-Mex musicians in Norteno style. The reworkings of Stand By Me and Smack Dab In The Middle work. Even He’ll Have To Go, a song I loathe by Jim Reeves, is fine here. Jimenez also appeared on the live Show Time in 1976. Jazz in 1978 curates early showbiz, vaudeville and ragtime material in new interpretations, and was such a strong concept that it failed to impress many existing fans. 1979’s Bop Till You Drop was one of the first (if not the first) digitally-recorded rock albums and should have been a switch to even wider acceptance, especially with the opening rendition of Little Sister, the song Elvis had recorded in 1962. I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine is exquisite instrumental work and competed for a place in the Ten with Dark End Of The Street. I decided it was one or the other. Borderline in 1980 features Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile, a song which appears on earlier live bootlegs and an instrumental title track, Borderline, which would have been in an all-instrumental Ry Cooder Toppermost. The Slide Area in 1982, has a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s Gyspy Woman, and completes this run of albums.

Five years later, in 1987 another solo album Get Rhythm appeared with Across The Borderline, Women Will Rule The World and Chuck Berry’s Thirteen Question Method. In 1992, Ry Cooder formed Little Village with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner for one album. Ry only sang lead on The Action.

It was becoming apparent that in spite of tours, superb albums and the best backing musicians he could assemble, Ry Cooder was not going to become a major singing star. His voice is memorable, but he does not have the power nor signature voice quality of a major singer. Increasingly he turned to film music, just as Randy Newman did, working more and more on soundtracks, beginning with The Long Riders in 1980. There are some great tunes entitled Jesse James but the instrumental take on The Long Riders is one of the best. Paris, Texas (1984) set the template that directors wanted to replicate. Other OST albums are Johnny Handsome, The Border, Southern Comfort, Alamo Bay, Last Man Standing and Crossroads. Crossroads is the blues guitar player’s wet dream. The double album, Music by Ry Cooder, compiles his soundtrack work. A minor gem without category is Pecos Bill from Rabbit Ears, a Windham Hill children’s label, pairing great musicians and great actors, Half is the story by Robin Williams, with accompaniment. The other half is just the instrumental track.

Then there’s the world music aspect of his career. He worked with Indian classical musician V.M. Bhatt on A Meeting By The River (1994), then with Ali Farka Touré on Talking Timbuktu (1995). Both got World Music Grammy awards. A Meeting By The River was our Sunday morning record for a couple of years. He worked with Wim Wenders on the film Buena Vista Social Club, then produced the world best-selling album in 1999. Ry didn’t profit. His earnings were confiscated and he was fined by the US government for working with Cuba, although the Buena Vista Social Club was able to tour Britain and Canada to acclaim. In 2002 he recorded Mambo Sinuendo with the Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban with yet another outstanding instrumental take on a well-known song, Secret Love, and the great Cuban feel of the title track. In 2007 he produced a gospel album with Mavis Staples, We’ll Never Turn Back.

The 21st century brought a “Southern California trilogy” of related concept albums, returning to singing, returning to a solo career, and retaining the Hispanic associations. Chavéz Ravine is about the Los Angeles Chicano district of the same name, working in both English and Spanish with Hispanic musicians. Onda Callejero was my second ‘bleedin’ obvious’ choice in the ten. The subsequent record, My Name Is Buddy, is a further concept about a travelling cat, and which is a parable of the Wobblies (International Workers of The World) and early 20th century American labour movements … it’s more fun than it sounds. Then, I, Flathead, is about drag racers in the desert and has stories to go with his songs. The track Johnny Cash captures the feel of early 60s Johnny Cash backing perfectly. Drive Like I’ve Never Been Hurt is another song sung in character.

2010 saw him collaborating with The Chieftains on San Patricio about an Irish-American battalion who switched sides to fight with Mexico in the Mexican-American war of 1848. In 2011, he released Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, an album of overtly political songs. Try No Banker Left Behind or Quick Sand, then Election Special in 2012 is in the same vein.


Ry Cooder and his music, includes discography

Ry Cooder biography (Apple Music)

Peter Viney has been an educational author and video scriptwriter since 1980. He has written articles on The Band, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. He also writes novels under the name Dart Travis and writes on popular music, theatre and film at his website.

TopperPost #53


  1. David Powell
    Aug 19, 2013

    Ry Cooder also played the spine-tingling slide guitar on “Sister Morphine” with the Rolling Stones on “Sticky Fingers.” In addition to working with Mavis Staples, Ry also recorded with her father Roebuck “Pops” in the ’90s, playing guitar on the albums “Peace to the Neighborhood” and “Father Father.”

  2. Peter Minihane
    Aug 19, 2013

    Great list, 5 favourites I would have included….
    Theme From Southern Comfort – The UFO Has Landed
    The Very Thing That Makes You Rich(Makes Me Poor) – Bop Til You Drop
    Tattler – Paradise & Lunch
    Bomber Bash – Streets of Fire OST
    J Edgar – My Name Is Buddy
    I could go on…..and on….

  3. David Lewis
    Aug 20, 2013

    His version of ‘get rhythm’ is superb, as is ‘crossroads’ from the soundtrack album of the same name.

  4. David Powell
    Aug 20, 2013

    A favorite track of mine is Ry’s playing on Bill Frissell’s version of “Shenandoah” from Bill’s GOOD DOG, HAPPY MAN album. It’s a tribute to the great jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, who passed away recently. It features Bill on acoustic guitar, Ry on electric guitars (including a stereo Ripley model), Viktor Krauss (Alison’s brother) on acoustic bass and Jim Keltner on drums.

  5. Rob Millis
    Aug 21, 2013

    Those of us in blues bands that tried to get something a bit more sophisticated than “Woke Up This Morning and Lost a Tenner” type dum-de-dum-de-dum songs into a set owe everything to Ry and Little Feat. If it wasn’t for his treatment of “Little Sister” and “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” or songs like “Willin'” we’d all still sound like a second hand John Mayall.
    No mention of Tanyet by the Ceylieb People, Peter? Tut tut.

  6. Peter Viney
    Aug 21, 2013

    I’d never heard of Tanyet by the Ceylieb People until today. 1968 raga rock with sitars, plus Ry and Hollywood’s finest session men. I’ll investigate. I also don’t know Bomber Bash from the Streets of Fire OST, which I don’t have. Will order a copy!

  7. Peter Viney
    Sep 15, 2013

    Toppermost posts must inevitably go out of date. Ry Cooder released the live “Ry Cooder & Corridos Famosos” album from the Great American Music Hall last week (recorded 2011). Three additional singers, plus Flaco Jiminez on accordion and “La Banda Juvenil” a ten piece Hispanic band. These are great versions, and it’s hard to think which one to add if you could. Definitely worth a listen. The three extra vocalists add a lot of richness, try the seven and a half minute Dark End Of The Street where they swap lead vocals.

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