James Lee Keltner (born April 27, 1942) is an American drummer known primarily for his session work. He was characterized by Bob Dylanbiographer Howard Sounes as “the leading session drummer in America”.
Keltner was inspired to start playing because of an interest in jazz, but the popularity of jazz was declining during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was the explosion of pop/rock in the mid-1960s that enabled him to break into recording work in Los Angeles. His first gig as a session musician was recording “She’s Just My Style” for the pop group Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
Keltner’s music career was hardly paying a living, and for several years at the outset he was supported by his wife. Toward the end of the 1960s, he finally began getting regular session work and eventually became one of the busiest drummers in Los Angeles. His earliest credited performances on record were with Gabor Szabo on the 1968 album Bacchanal.
In 1968, Keltner was also working in a music shop in Pasadena just down the street from the old Ice House coffeehouse when he was recruited to play drums in a “psychedelic” vocal group named “MC Squared” along with Michael Crowley, Michael Clough, Linda Carey, (all from the folk group The Back Porch Majority) and session guitarist/bassist Randy Cierley Sterling. They were signed by Mo Ostin and recorded an album for Warner/Reprise originally titled “MC Squared” which has later been re-mastered and re-released in 2012 with the album title “Tantalizing Colors.” They appeared live that same year on the Hugh Hefner / Playboy Magazine television show Playboy After Dark playing two songs: an original by MC Squared members Michael Clough and Michael Crowley titled “I Know You” and a cover version of the Fred Neil song Everybody’s Talkin’. Both Playboy After Dark performances with Keltner playing drums can currently be viewed on YouTube.
It was his work with Leon Russell playing on Delaney & Bonnie’s Accept No Substitute that attracted the attention of Joe Cocker, who recruited Russell and everyone else he could out of the Delaney & Bonnie band for his Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. Playing with Joe Cocker led to work in 1970 and 1971, on records by Carly Simon (No Secrets), Barbra Streisand (Barbra Joan Streisand), Booker T. Jones (Booker T. & Priscilla), George Harrison (The Concert for Bangladesh) and John Lennon (Imagine).