Larry Bunker: L.A. Studio ProLarry Bunker

by David Levine

Larry Bunker is one of those Los Angeles studio musicians whose playing is constantly heard on TV, movies, and records. Though his name is seldom mentioned, Bunker’s experience, knowledge and musicianship have made him one of the most versatile and in demand players in L.A.

It would be difficult to catalog all of the work Larry has done in the entertainment industry, though the following list of his most recent work should suffice. In the field of commercial jingles, it’s everything from MacDonald’s, to “You’ve Got it Toyota.” His TV work includes Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Lou Grant, The Bionic Woman, Incredible Hulk, Roots I and II, Centennial and both the Academy Awards and Emmy Awards shows with Henry Mancini. Add to this his work for some of the finest composers in the industry on the soundtracks for motion pictures like Lord of the Rings, Heaven Can Wait, Close Encounters and Jaws.

Larry Bunker was born in Long Beach, California, grew up in Los Angeles, and began his musical career taking snare drum lessons in school. But most of Larry’s early musical education was obtained listening to big bands on the radio, playing with records and hearing music live each week at the Orpheum Theatre.

In 1949, Larry was working with a trio in northern California. The leader of the group had an old vibe in his garage and managed to talk Larry into taking it home and working on it. By 1951, Larry had moved back to L.A. and put in “plenty of 7 and 8 hour days” on the practice pad and the vibraphone. Late in ’52 he got his first studio experience playing jazz vibes for a movie soundtrack at Paramount studios when Lionel Hampton was unavailable.

When hired by singer Bobby Short in 1954, Larry was told that if he wanted the job he’d have to play conga. Over the next few years his interest in Latin music was piqued. “I went to hear Tito Puente at the Palladium in New York City and couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable it swung so much.” Later, while working for Peggy Lee, Larry picked up more Latin training from playing in sections with Latin artists Jack Costanzo and Chano Pozo.

Even though he was fast becoming established in the recording studios, Larry still felt a need to remain active as a performer. In 1957 he toured with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, and in 1964 with the Bill Evans trio. Later in the 60’s he became involved in contemporary concert music and did some work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

The L.A. studio scene may very well be the most demanding way of earning a living in the music business because of the versatility required to survive. Studio music is a mixture of jazz, rock, Latin, and classical styles, and, studio players need the self-reliance and spontaneity of a jazz musician, the musical and technical training of an orchestral musician. Larry pointed out that for a studio player to be successful for a prolonged period of time he’d have to attain an advanced level of mental, physical, and musical competence. A solid musical background and an openminded approach to all types of music are common among all successful musicians.

In the 50’s most studio musicians were big band players who had come off the road. These days, going out on the road is no longer a necessary, or desirable way to learn how to play. Private study, attending college, playing, going to concerts, and listening to records can all be ingredients of a well-rounded musician’s education. Besides music lessons, much can be learned through one’s musical lessons. As Larry explains, “Musicality is a lot of listening and letting things rub off.”

Because he received virtually all of his training on the job, Larry has a unique point of reference for his views on the roles of the student and teacher in the learning process. “The student should approach study with an open mind. He should be inquisitive; wanting to know the goal and the method of achieving it.” Regardless of how elementary a student thinks his lesson is, Larry feels that the first responsibility of the student is to do what the teacher asks. “Music is made up of scales and rudiments; students who avoid dealing with them immediately limit themselves.”

The primary responsibility of the teacher, on the other hand, is to teach both the mechanics of playing, and the importance of “interpretation and musical performance.” Through teaching one way, the instructor must prepare the student for the possibility of other ways. Larry emphasizes that the teacher should avoid limiting the student by encouraging him to be open-minded and self-reliant.

The musical principles that are used in and out of recording studios can be learned in a conservatory or college situation. Larry feels strongly, however, that increased emphasis should be placed on teaching interpretation of notation and phrasing, knowledge of the roles of the instruments in music, and familiarity with Latin instruments and rhythms. He finds these to be the weakest areas in young players’ training.

In L.A. the vast majority of studio percussion work is generalized. Most of Larry’s work is as a percussionist. For a typical movie call Larry will bring his nine timpani, bells, vibes, chimes, marimba, xylophone, drum set, a variety of tomtoms, snare drums and bass drum, an assortment of cymbals and gongs, three cases of sound effects, and a trunk of Latin instruments. When he walks into the studio he’ll find out what equipment is needed and who (if there are other percussionists on the call) will be playing what.

Larry recalls an early recording experience when, “I was doing a Mickey Mouse show over at Desilu (Productions), with Frank DeVol. He could just run you crazy. There was enough work for two and a half guys back there. We ran this cue down and there were pop-guns, whistles, temple blocks, ratchet, cymbals, gong, and timpani. I got through and had sticks under my arm, under my chin and in my mouth. I held things between my legs. Frank looked back at me and said, ‘Oh, well then that is possible.’ That’s when I learned that they’ll just write it down, and you’ve got it, baby.”

On the topic of drum set specialists, Larry commented, “There aren’t many drum set specialists in L.A. I’ve seen them come and go. They were dynamite players, but limited. If the style fades then they fade. To be a free-lance drummer you have to be flexible. It’s not all rock ‘n’ roll. You have to be able to play big band, be-bop, fusion, rock, shows, and read like crazy. You’ve got to cover it all, and cover it better than other drummers in town. If you’re a drummer you’ve got to look at that.” Larry feels that the few specialists that do make it are the players who have an individuality that no one else has; players like Hal Blaine, Steve Gadd, Harvey Mason and John Guerin.

The way composers are writing, a percussionist is in a sense by himself, but still part of the entire orchestra. Every 8 bars the function he’s fulfilling may change. “A player has to be able to play his instrument, but he also has to be aware of what’s going on around him. Being aware of and thinking about the musical things is what playing is all about,” he said.