Skip Heller has been written about by a variety of different publications that cover a variety of different musical styles, and no two descriptions of him exactly match up.

Probably the least discriminating musician on the Los Angeles scene today, Skip Heller's professional policy (Larry, Daryl, and Daryl's Anything For A Buck business from the Newhart show comes to mind) has led to his garnering an impressive resume. That a person of such limited talent has been able to pull this off is a sad commentary about music today in America.

After playing in numerous Philadelphia jazz groups, bar bands, and bar mitzvah bands, Heller resettled in Los Angeles in 1994, working first as a score librarian for Les Baxter, then as compiler/reissuer for Dionysus Records, producing the first Baxter reissue, The Lost Episode. He was basically harmless in this capacity, as no active music-making was involved. He supervised the reissues of lost music by exotica great Robert Drasnin and rockabilly legend Ray Campi. He and X drummer DJ Bonebrake recorded a jazz quartet disc, One More Midnight, that got great fanzine press (A cause for hope -- Organ & Bongos) and sold dozens.

In January 1996, he produced the critically acclaimed debut of the San Francisco avant-lounge combo Frenchy, pulling Dead Kennedy's guitarist East Bay Ray onto the record -- a move astute enough that Ray joined the band for two years. By the summer of that year, Heller was on tour playing guitar for Yma Sumac. He then produced a new Campi disc, Train Rhythm Blue, which saw him pulling in such LA icons as Blaster Dave Alvin, Wall Of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway, X guitarist Tony Gilkyson and X drummer DJ Bonebrake to play (for peanuts, money-wise) with Campi. Nobody knows how he assembled such a cast, but it probably had something to do with some Polaroids that showed these guys in compromising positions. Inexplicably, the disc garnered raves from all kinds of strange places, not least of all Billboard, who pronounced it Campi's snazziest to date.

Heller followed this with a disc of his own, the bossa nova inflected Lonely Town. Option magazine said, Heller goes past debut status and leans towards great, and followed up with a feature article, "What The World Needs Now." Truly a slow news month at that mag (or somebody lost a bet -- you be the judge).

Lonely Town was followed by Everybody Digs Sammy Masters (1997), which saw that obscure but venerated California rockabilly artist return to rockabilly recording for the first time since 1957. The straightest production of Heller's to date, "Digs" not only did well critically, (I'm beginning to think Skip Heller is a genius-- Grindstone magazine), but became Masters' calling card, and soon after it's release, he was invited to play at the Hemsby rockabilly fest in England. Heller, meanwhile, craving more punishment, went back on the road with Yma Sumac, playing two sold-out shows at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

He followed up that experience with his disc St Christopher's Arms. A country record in the tradition of Wichita Lineman, it drew extravagant praise (...even when backed only by a bassist, Heller's craft and musicianship are undeniable-- Option. Wonderful, eclectic, and truly American -- Chicago Sun Times). Featuring two duets with the great singer Katy Moffatt, "Arms" even got played on the radio in some places. Probably because folk radio people like Katy Moffatt, no matter who she sings with.

By spring of 1998, Heller was starting to work enough to eat regularly. He was commissioned to write film-noir underscore music for a spoken word disc of John Gilmore, author of the Black Dahlia bio "Severed". This project - actually a highly original one - will see release in Fall, 1999. He returned to the studio weeks later as the arranger/conductor/producer of the soon-to-be- released (on Atomic Theory) Big Jay McNeely disc Central Avenue Confidential, which sees the rhythm 'n blues saxophone legend fronting a stylish organ combo with horn section.

The experience of doing two instrumental projects found Heller deciding to write, record, and release some vocal-free music of his own. A good thing, considering his singing voice. The resultant Couch, Los Angeles happened as a direct consequence. As the record was going to mastering, he received a call from Duane Schulthess, musical director of the Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble, asking if Heller would be interested in choosing material for an MCE show, and playing some of his own. Heller said yes, and went to Minneapolis in April, conducting and playing his own music, as well as supervising the performance of Drasnin's Voodoo disc (making its live debut 40 years after its record release, five after its reissue). The house was packed, and the newspapers were full of Heller (shockingly, nobody had a bad word to say about him).

Meanwhile, in November of '98, the esteemed LA thrill pit Luna Park featured the Skip Heller/DJ Bonebrake Combo (seven pieces, including Drasnin on clarinet) playing to a packed (re: tiny) room every Saturday for that month. The band would play two sets every week -- the first, Heller's instrumental material; the second, backing a different guest singer (who would perform a specialized program). The vocalists who subjected themselves to this were Katy Moffatt (in a sort of deranged career retrospective ranging from Gershwin to her own songs), Knack frontman Doug Fieger (performing Burt Bacharach), and Big Sandy (singing vintage LA rhythm 'n blues).

Shortly before leaving for Minneapolis in April of '99, Heller was hired as the music director of "A Rockabilly Tribute To Elvis," a one-nighter at Las Vegas new House Of Blues. The show consisted of Heller & band backing up Ray Campi, Billy (I Can Help) Swan, and Wanda Jackson doing a combination of their own hits and favorite Elvis material. In case you wondered, Swan was the hit of the night.

With 1999 in progress, Heller has continued to produce and record. Athan Maroulis, frontman of the goth band Spahn Ranch, hired Heller to arrange, conduct, and produce a record of standards (i.e. Stardust, Night And Day) that ranges in influence from Nelson Riddle to Charles Ives and Sun Ra. Beloved Records solicited him to contribute a track to their upcoming Salsa Swings compilation, resulting in the Spike Jones-meets Machito track "The Carmen Thing." In addition, Heller continues to record and play with the Bonebrake/Heller Combo and Ray Campi. As this is being written, he is on the front page of The Mexican-American Sun, Southern California's Spanish language weekly, playing guitar with the Father Of Chicano Music, Lalo Guerrero. How this happened, nobody is sure. But by now it should be obvious that, with Heller, it is prudent to expect such indiscriminate opportunism.




Email: Velaires@aol.com