I know its hard to respond to Hello as a piece of music, leaving aside that bizarre video and the half-million or so internet memes it’s spawned, but let’s give it a go.
By the time he got the call from Lionel Richie and producer James Anthony Carmichael to come and play on Hello, Louis Shelton had a couple of decades’ experience as a prominent session guitarist and producer behind him. A member of the fabled Wrecking Crew (a loose network of LA-based players who backed everyone from Bob B Soxx & the Blue Jeans to Simon & Garfunkel) in the 1960s, Shelton moved into production in the 1970s, working with Seals & Crofts, England Dan and John Ford Coley*, and Art Garfunkel.
The Wrecking Crew musicians were a diverse bunch. Some had backgrounds in blues, R&B and country, but a lot of them (probably the majority) learned their trade playing jazz at the tail end of the big band/swing era. (As a side note, some jazz fans are critical of the widespread notion that West Coast jazz was necessarily more laid back, more Cool, than its New York counterpart, but it seems to me that there’s enough truth in it to make “West Coast jazz” a useful shorthand for non-bebop jazz in that era from LA and San Francisco). The jazz cats took with them into pop session work not only an advanced knowledge of harmony and a keenly developed sense of melody, but an ability to bring that training and experience to their playing in the moment.
Shelton’s gorgeous one-take solo on Hello is absolutely the song’s best moment, and demonstrates not only everything that had made him a such a valuable player on the session circuit, but everything that made those West Coast jazz players so sought after in the studio: taste, control, judgement and emotion. Hello is a ballad, as opposed to a power ballad, and Shelton (using not only his instinct as a soloist, but also the judgement he’d honed in the control booth as a producer) wisely stays away from anything fast, flashy or bombastic.
He begins in a rather subdued fashion in the middle of the guitar’s range, and only gently builds intensity, particularly with a double-stop triplet at the end of the second phrase. Of note to me is his natural-sounding vibrato: not classical-style (i.e. side to side movement within the fret) but a restrained up-and-down motion, not the exagerrated, BB King-type movement typical of blues and rock players. Also, he avoids any string bending – which, again, makes me think jazz more than blues. Being primarily an acoustic player using 13-gauge strings, who has only recently developed anything close to a decent string bending technique on electric guitar, I love hearing a solo that doesn’t use the technique yet still manages to be vocal, lyrical, human and all the other words that get tossed around when we discuss lead guitar and string bending.
Halfway through the solo, Shelton gives us the clearest indicator of his jazz heritage with a gorgeous Wes Montgomery-style octave melody. He deliberately slurs those octaves, sliding up into them, keeping them just a tiny little bit ragged – not so you’d notice and think it sounded untidy, but just to prevent the playing feeling too clean and robotic (that he made that decision in the moment to not only play a melody in octaves but to play it this way speaks to his experience and maturity as a soloist). He then reiterated that lovely second phrase, before returning to octaves to play an ascending lick over the change to the parallel major that leads in the chorus.
In a ballad, phrasing and melody are even more important than they are in faster or harder songs. Avoiding cliche is more crucial still. When Richie and Carmichael called in Shelton to play on Hello, they made the decision to connect the song back to the musical values of 20 or so years prior, and Shelton repaid them with one of the finest guitar solos of the era.
*Jim Seals from Seals & Crofts and England Dan were actually brothers. “England Dan” was Dan Seals, his nickname a result of his fondness for the Beatles and his subsequent affectation of an English accent. I like to think of tense dinners at the Seals household in the early 1970s, as the brothers argued over who had the better semi-acoustic soft-rock harmony duo.