Joel O'Brien

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Joel O'Brien was a multi-instrumentalist -- though mostly recognized as a drummer, in terms of recordings -- whose career took him from a busy local R&B band to the top circles of pop/rock session work…
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Joel O'Brien was a multi-instrumentalist -- though mostly recognized as a drummer, in terms of recordings -- whose career took him from a busy local R&B band to the top circles of pop/rock session work in the decade that followed. He was born in New York City in 1943, the son of an entertainment executive (and later radio disc jockey) and an actress, and he started in music with lessons on the piano at an early age. He flirted with acting as an interest for a time, and also worked as an apprentice film editor, but he showed his real interest in his choice of an education after high school: the Manhattan School of Music. By his own account, even at this early point in his life he had manifested a substance abuse problem -- an addiction to heroin -- that would dog him for much of his early career. O'Brien gravitated toward jazz, though he also had an interest in folk and country music, and eventually joined an R&B band called the Kingbees, whose members included Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar on lead guitar. Following that group's breakup, he and Kortchmar, along with singer/guitarist James Taylor, formed the Flying Machine, who seemed poised for success working out of New York's Greenwich Village but never quite realized their potential -- there were other problems, to be sure, but the heroin addiction that he and Taylor both shared didn't help the band's prospects during its brief one-year history. O'Brien and Kortchmar were later part of a band called Jo Mama; he also passed through an outfit called the Glitterhouse, whose members included Moogy Klingman. From there he went on to play (along with Kortchmar and other members of Jo Mama) with Carole King on her first three albums, and he also played on James Taylor's sister Kate Taylor's acclaimed debut album, Sister Kate. O'Brien was part of the Los Angeles music scene during the early '70s but eventually moved to Woodstock, NY, working with Robbie Dupree in various bands, and also started doing work in photography. He also lived in Tuscany for a time and returned to playing music -- this time the piano. In his later life, although he continued to play music, O'Brien concentrated more on art in terms of his public life. He died of liver cancer in 2004.