The J.B.’s (James Brown)
James Brown was such a rigid taskmaster that he was legendary for being able to squeeze killer performances even from pickup bands he’d never worked with before. But with all respect to the Famous Flames, his backing group for the first 15 years, nothing could touch the razor precision with which the J.B.’s supported the Hardest Working Man In Show Business. Part of that was surely due to Brown’s notorious habit of fining his musicians for the slightest mistake on or off the stage. But with Jabo Starks on drums (augmented at times by the funky drummer himself, Clyde Stubblefield), Maceo Parker on saxophone and, for a time, future P-Funkateer Bootsy Collins on bass, the J.B.’s were the tightest (and possibly most terrified) band in the world, carrying out the orders of a ruthless disciplinarian and being rewarded by acting as the machine with which he invented a brand-new genre: funk.
The Attractions (Elvis Costello)
“My Aim Is True” established Elvis Costello as one of the sharpest, most important new voices in rock ’n’ roll, and it takes exactly five seconds for follow-up “This Year’s Model” to make it sound declawed. Credit the introduction of the Attractions, a crazily fierce unit with a surf-rock organ gone berserk and a rhythm section that constantly fell just on the right side of chaos. Starting out as a punk-styled Booker T and the MGs, the Attractions proved themselves flexible enough to swing with Costello’s changing moods (from soul to country to lush pop), making them indispensable... right up until he dismissed them after 1986’s“Blood And Chocolate.” But the Attractions returned in the mid-1990s, until a long-simmering conflict between Costello and bassist Bruce Thomas resulted in the latter being booted for good, with Costello later declaring that he only works with professional musicians.
The E Street Band (Bruce Springsteen)
When Danny Federici died this past April, the world lost what was in all likelihood the last great rock ’n’ roll glockenspiel player. That just goes to show how expansive the E Street Band truly is, something all the more impressive considering the conventional wisdom that they’re nothing more than a no-nonsense rock ’n’ roll combo. A friend once declared that they “rocked with all the authority of tenured professors,” which I think he meant as an insult. But while they may lack flash (except for the keyboard tag team of Federici and Roy Bittan, whose piano playing gave Springsteen’s songs an almost classical majesty), they compensated by providing a rock-solid foundation that amplifies the Boss’s power tenfold. And yet, with the exception of a handful of live albums, you won’t find the words “E Street Band” on any of the album covers.
Crazy Horse (Neil Young)
Neil Young has had a number of different backup bands over the years, but there’s a reason nobody ever rhapsodizes about the Bluenotes. Tapped for Young’s second solo album,“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” Crazy Horse helped Young develop the ultra-distorted, 4/4 plod of songs like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)” that earned the sobriquet “the Godfather of Grunge” years later. It’s no coincidence that it took the Crazy Horse-like “Rockin’ In The Free World” to reestablish him as a viable creative force after his sonic wanderings of the 1980s. And it’s no surprise that he followed that up by immediately reconvening the group to record “Ragged Glory,” an instant classic of volume and overdrive. Other bands have let Young be more versatile. Nobody’s ever let him be wilder.
The Revolution (Prince)
The Revolution had maybe the hardest job of anybody listed here, since it had to measure up to Prince’s previous backing group: Prince himself, multi-tracked in the studio. Not only that, it could find itself switching from the straightforward rock power of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the pop balladeering of “Purple Rain” to the hard electrofunk of “Computer Blue” to the indescribable rhythmic weirdness that was “When Doves Cry”... and that was just one album. The Revolution actually didn’t last very long — it’s only credited on three albums — but it was instrumental both musically and visually, helping to put Prince over the top as a superstar. With keyboardist Doctor Fink (real, boring first name: Matt) in his scrubs and guitarist Wendy Melvoin pulling double duty, writhing dull-eyed with keyboardist Lisa Coleman and then rolling her eyes at Prince’s ridiculousness, it’s the Revolution that people think of when they think of Prince in his prime.