He’s played and recorded with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Elton John, Dolly Parton and Barry White.
He hung out with Pablo Casals — in Westport.
He’s 81 years old. He lives a continent away, near Seattle. In fact, Buell Neidlinger hasn’t been back here much since he left in 1955.
But he’s an avid “06880” fan. He comments frequently, primarily on music and looking-back stories.
And man, does he have tales to tell.
Buell arrived in Westport in 1938, at 2 years old. His parents rented a house on South Compo Road. (A few years later, his father worked with General Eisenhower’s staff in London, planning the Omaha Beach landing.) Buell’s grandfather lived nearby, on Thomas Road.
Buell went to Bedford Junior High, then St. Luke’s in New Canaan.
Pablo Casals was one of the first famous musicians Buell Neidlinger met. He would not be the last.
His first instrument was the cello. That led to his early encounter with Casals. The bass came later.
He spent one year at Yale. The McCarthy hearings mesmerized the country. Buell realized, “I was in school with the same type of people I was watching every day on TV.” College was not for him.
Buell floated around. He returned to Westport, working in Frank Zack’s “high-class haberdashery” downtown.
He sold aluminum windows. Meanwhile he practiced bass in a warehouse, playing along to records.
Max Kaminsky, a famous jazz trumpeter renting in Westport, convinced Buell to move to New York — perhaps the best advice he ever got. He backed Billie Holiday when she played clubs, during the last years of her life.
The first hit record Buell played on was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
“We’d call the answering service,” Buell remembers. “They’d say, ‘you’ve got a session on Saturday, 10 a.m.’ That would be that.”
The custom of the day was for the rhythm track to be recorded first. Then came vocals, followed by horns. The “string sweetener” — with Buell — came last. The lead vocalist cut another track, this time singing along with the strings.
In 1957, Buell Neidlinger played at the Newport Jazz Festival with famed pianist Cecil Taylor. (Photo/Bob Parent)
Buell’s studio work led to a number of live gigs. He played with Chuck Berry, whose promoter was the first white man Buell ever saw with long hair.
He was on stage with the Carpenters — and can be heard on their famous version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
The Moody Blues flew Buell to London. They needed his acoustic bass.
It wasn’t all rock, pop and jazz. Buell also played with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe.
The list of famous recording sessions rolls off Buell’s tongue: The Village People’s “YMCA.” The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and “Desperado.” He played with the 5th Dimension and Chicago. He was there the night John Lennon challenged Harry Nilsson to the screaming match that ruined Harry’s voice.
Buell Neidlinger (center), flanked by Roy Orbison and T Bone Burnett.
He met Whitney Houston when she was just 9 or 10. Her mother — famed gospel singer Cissy Houston — brought her to sessions. During breaks, Cissy and other backup singers sang church songs to their kids. “I’ve never heard anything like that,” Buell recalls.
Elton John played piano on his first 3 albums, while Buell played bass. Years later, Elton offered him $10,000 to perform in a Hollywood concert that included Leon Russell (whom Buell had backed on earlier club dates). Buell was honored — but had retired.
He’d gotten other calls too, like the one to play with Frank Sinatra in Egypt, for King Farouk’s birthday.
Sinatra is a huge name. So is Dolly Parton. He played on her “Coat of Many Colors.”
“What a voice! Buell says. “What a song! What a person! What a night!”
Among all the singers Buell backed, Barbra Streisand stands out. During one session, he played a Mozart composition. She did not like one note. “She changed Mozart,” Buell marvels.
Buell Neidlinger and his wife, Margaret Storer, on the Warner Brothers sound stage in 1993. The big blue trunk carried his 1785 Italian bass.
Buell — who for 27 years was principal bassist of the Warner Brothers orchestra — played on hundreds of movie soundtracks. His first was “Soylent Green.” His last was “Oscar and Lucinda.” In between were many others, including “Aladdin,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Lion King,” “Shawshank Redemption” and “Yentl.”
Film recording has changed a lot, Buell notes. When he began, musicians worked up to 8 hours a day, for 10 days. For “La La Land,” he says, the orchestra played for just 4 hours, once. All the rest was done on computers.
In 1992, Buell and his wife, Margaret Storer, took their very first vacation: to Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. They liked it so much, they bought property there.
That’s where they live now. In retirement, he plays cello all day.
These days, Buell Neidlinger plays in a local coffee shop. He calls himself “Billy the Cellist.”
Though he hasn’t been back to Westport in decades, he remembers it fondly. “It was so beautiful,” he says. “It was like living in the wilderness — with amenities.”
He asks about local musicians, then answers his own question: “I hope Jose Feliciano is doing well. I did a session with him in L.A.”
Of course he did. He’s Buell Neidlinger.
The only man from Westport who has played with Pablo Casals, Brian Wilson, Duane Eddy.
And Ringo Starr.